Athlete and face of Nike Pro Hijab
Q&A with Manal Rostom
The first in a series of three interviews, the Design Museum speaks to elite athlete, Manal Rostom about how Beazley Design of the Year Fashion nominee, the Nike Pro Hijab, has impacted on her career.
As one of the few Egyptian hijabi marathon runners, how did you manage to conquer this male dominated profession?
I grew up in a British school in Kuwait, where my passion for running was born during PE classes. I was a part of the track & field team since age 15 and my passion never faded. It wasn’t until I hit my late 20s and early 30s that I started to develop a greater passion for longer distance running and ran my first full marathon, 42.2 km in 2014, the Dubai Marathon. Year-to-date I have run five marathons and one ultra-marathon. I remember very clearly I used to be made fun of when I would go out and run in the streets in Egypt. People would either call me names or little boys would run after me. I would get scared and would just turn up the music. You just have to keep doing what you believe in and that’s it. My parents never really understood what distance my first marathon would be until I actually ran it and they realised it could possibly be the distance between two cities in Egypt.
How can we change the mentality of how Arab women are perceived?
By showcasing as many epic women as possible and there are quite a few. When a veiled woman walks into a room, heads should stop to turn and people should quit judging. Is she educated? Does she speak English? Will she speak to us? Is she normal? Is there hair under her hijab?
Your Facebook page, “Surviving Hijab”, aims to empower women and break down barriers. What advice do you have for a young inspiring athlete nervous about getting into sports?
Things are changing and the world is changing. The labels on hijabi athletes are being removed slowly but the good news – they are being removed. I grew up in a western society with an identity crisis and was scared of hijab! I was scared to wear it for fear I would be judged by close friends or feel out of place while travelling. I didn’t have anyone iconic to look up to when it came to sports and that was a major setback. I remember when I told my dad I wanted to wear the hijab post an accident that we had at age 19, the first thing he asked was, “but you play and do so much sports. How will hijab fit into your lifestyle?” It took me two years to reach my decision to wear the headscarf after our accident. So for the little ones, they are so blessed and fortunate to be growing up in a digital generation – they have access to all their heroes via social media – I didn’t grow up with the internet. They can now connect and relate to iconic athletes like Ibtihaj Muhammad the first American, Olympic Athlete who wears the hijab and represented America in 2016 and the first, hijabi super model Halima Aden, etc.
How does the Nike Pro Hijab help you perform better in your training and climbing compared with other traditional hijabs?
The Nike Pro Hijab is made of the same material that Nike uses to manufacture tops that are designed for running. The material is called 'Dri-fit' and it helps transport the sweat away from the body. As a fitness instructor and a marathoner my number one advice to anyone who wants to run any race is to strictly stay away from cotton. So by having a hijab that is also dri-fit is simply genius. Gone are the days when we wear cotton hijabs or hijabs that just sit or feel wrong on the head. The area around the neck can get highly irritated and can negatively impact the performance of any hijabi athlete who trains outside. When the campaign came out last March 2017 I remember there was a huge backlash and criticism by local brands that have produced a similar product and the question was “why is it a big deal now ; the product has been around for ages by other companies?” The big deal is that finally, a multinational, mainstream brand acknowledged the existence of hijabi athletes and catered for them. That was history being made. Also shortly after the launch of the Nike Pro Hijab, FIBA announced lifting the ban off hijabi basketball players. One of the announcements used my photo to make the announcement. It was a great honour and pride.
Tell us about your first conversation you had with Nike when you approached them about their lack of representation for hijabi athletes?
I was interviewed by an international tv channel about my Surviving Hijab group and right after it I was chatting with a friend who suggested that I write to Nike to ask why they weren't featuring veiled women in their Nike Middle East Campaigns. Nike explained the reason being that they couldn’t find hijabi athletes or if they did find one, chances are they wouldn’t be open to a photo shoot that would go public. In March 2015 I became the first ever hijabi Nike Run club coach. In May 2015 I became the first hijabi Nike trainer. And in July 2015 , a miracle happened when I was invited by Nike HQ in Portland Oregon to represent the Middle East and attend the Train The Trainer Summit in Oregon. In March 2017 , I was invited to the Nike HQ in Dubai by Roy Nasrallah, former Nike Marketing Director in the Middle East who said he had something to show me that was “potentially going to change my life .” He took out the hijab and I remember I was in tears to see how far we have come and what we have achieved simply because we persevered. I owe it all to the force of hijabi women in Surviving Hijab who give me energy and a voice to speak up every day.
You are the first hijabi woman to be featured in an international Nike campaign and the first Egyptian woman to run the Great Wall Marathon. What drives you to constantly challenge yourself?
I feel we all come into the world for a reason and our mission is to try to find what this reason is. Whether it’s to pursue a passion or change lives or inspire the little ones, our lives must have meanings beyond going to work, eating and sleeping. People don’t get why marathons are so fulfilling for runners. Likewise I don’t get why Olympic weight lifting can also be as fulfilling. To each to their own. Find something that makes you happy and that transforms you into a more mature, wiser, kinder human being. We become so humble through travel, adventure and sports.
You are also hoping to become the first Egyptian woman to climb Mount Everest, what inspired you to take up mountain climbing as a second sport?
I fell in love with mountaineering after I found out that Egypt has one mountain climber and that it’s actually possible to take up a sport that is so strange to your culture and environment. I was very inspired by Omar Samra and followed his journey since 2007. I have a thing for nature and physical activity in general. Mountain climbing combines both – endurance, scenery and a beautiful opportunity to connect with nature and with yourself first and foremost in the calm of the mountains. I climbed my first mountain, Kilimanjaro, in 2012 and got addicted since then. Year-to-date I have climbed five mountain tops , and have also done Everest Base Camp and reached 5600 m of Aconcagua in Argentina, the second highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas . I am hoping to re-attempt Aconcagua at the end of this year or early next year. All fingers crossed.
Tell us about your next challenge and what you will be training for next?
My next challenge is the New York Marathon on 5 November 2017. This will be my seventh marathon in total and I hope I can run it sub 4:45.
What’s your ultimate goal?
On a sports level, I would love to become the first Egyptian woman to climb Everest, finish the seven highest mountains on each continent, having only climbed two out of seven, and run the world’s major marathons. On a social level, I aspire to become an icon of inspiration for young, Arab girls just to show them what they can be and how much they can achieve if they stop being scared and feeling small.
Follow Manal's journey on Instagram: @manirostom