Baranyai: Toronto Raptors’ hijab in the merch line a further sign of inclusion


Toronto Raptors “superfan” Nav Bhatia leads the charge during the first quarter in Toronto, Ont. on Wednesday April 25, 2018. (Jack Boland/Postmedia Network)

As if the Toronto Raptors didn’t do enough to charm our socks off, the NBA champion team — often celebrated for reflecting the city’s diversity — has added a new line of merchandise catering to its multicultural fan base.

Raptors-branded hijabs, produced by Nike, have been added to the merch line. The team’s owner, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, says the “Toronto Raptors Nike pro hijab” is the first of its kind in the NBA.

A tweet launching the new fan gear described it as “inspired by those brave enough to change the game,” a nod to the Hijabi Ballers, a Toronto organization promoting athletics for Muslim women.

Until quite recently, head coverings were forbidden in professional basketball. The International Basketball Federation lifted its ban only in 2017, after a two-year test period. Safety concerns included the possibility a hijab, turban or yarmulke could fall to the floor, creating a slipping hazard on the court. The reversal followed a similar decision in 2014 by the international governing bodies for soccer.

Canadian achievements in basketball and soccer have rallied fans across the country, drawing bigger and bigger crowds. The energized fan bases — embodied by beloved Raptors “superfan” Nav Bhatia — reflect the diversity on the court and on the field to a much greater extent than in the stadiums where baseball, football and hockey are played.

The shift toward inclusion can play a defining role in inspiring the next generation. A world of possibilities opens up when kids see, for example, a black president, a disabled actor or a hijabi-wearing athlete.

During the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. She was listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, and inspired the first Barbie doll in hijab.

Muhammad’s reflections on breaking barriers as a Muslim American were valid news. But when the cameras were rolling, her aspirations and hard work were often overshadowed by questions about her head covering. Every Olympian has a story of dedication and sacrifice, but the relentless focus on what Muhammad wore was a distraction from what she accomplished.

The only other member of the American Olympic team I remember fielding so many wardrobe questions was Kerri Walsh Jennings in beach volleyball. Both women medalled at the Games in Rio de Janeiro, and both had more to offer than their thoughts on how much skin they exposed while doing it.

That’s where fan merchandise comes in, helping to normalize the hijab as athletic gear, so it becomes a smaller part of the story and a bigger part of the game.

Reception to the garment has been mixed. Many expressed gratitude. Other commenters have suggested the team is promoting a symbol of oppression.

Most Muslim women who wear a head covering choose it as an expression of faith and modesty; many don’t wear one at all. As with other religions’ customs around clothing and food, a range of traditions is reflected in how people observe their faith.

It’s a different story in Iran, where women are required to wear hijab in public, and are not even permitted to enter a soccer stadium.

It’s good to see people standing up for Iranian women; however, the problem is not the hijab itself, but the restriction of personal freedom. Forcing women to choose between playing sports and wearing head coverings is just another restriction of their freedom.

The Raptors’ hijab epitomizes the opposite of Iran’s repressive laws, explicitly inviting women in — to watch and to play. It represents inclusion, not oppression.