Inclusion and Vision

Hummel’s AFF kit has it covered

by Shireen Ahmed

When FIFA’s ban on the hijab was finally lifted on March 1, 2014, the soccer world hardly seemed to notice. There were reports in mainstream media outlets, but very few recognized sportswriters had anything to add, and for prominent women’s soccer players, the issue was irrelevant. Major sports equipment companies such as Adidas and UnderArmour were similarly unmoved by the news. But one sportswear company was paying attention: hummel.

Two years after the FIFA ban was lifted — on International Women’s Day 2016 — hummel released new kits for the Afghan Football Association (AFF). The kits are beautifully designed, but one very special detail stands out: the shirts come with a matching, integrated hijab.

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With the release of this kit, hummel helped to normalize headscarf-wearing women in sport. It has also demonstrated the responsibility of sportswear companies to consider all customers and demographics when designing their products. And they have done it all while supporting a team that advocates for the empowerment of women through soccer.

Christian Stadil, hummel’s owner, says that his company is dedicated to elevating the game and helping communities. In a recent interview, Stadil highlighted why this particular project is so meaningful.

The female angle is still a very important part of this too,” he said. “Still today, it can be difficult for girls to live out their passion for sport. So that mission and vision is also a part of this; we would like to empower the fantastic strong women of Afghanistan through this collaboration.”

Since it’s humble beginnings more than 90 years ago, hummel has sponsored projects everywhere from Sierra Leone to Lithuania, and supports different clubs that promote unity and understanding.

The pictures of Afghan players modeling the new kits are fierce. The kits themselves, which have a lion subtly embossed on the front of the shirt, are gorgeous. But the story of how the kits were created is equally important.

Anne Skovrider, hummel’s International Marketing Manager and manager on the AFF kit project, explained over email how this unlikely partnership was formed. In 2009, Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghanistan women’s team reached out to the team at hummel. Popal described how the soccer programs in Afghanistan were struggling due to a lack of proper equipment.

From there, the cooperation developed into a sponsorship of all Afghan youth and senior national teams, kids academies and training camps as well as all teams in the Afghan Premier League,” Skovrider says. Not only did hummel provide clothing, but they committed to assisting with coaching and training support in order to stabilize a decent soccer program in the war-torn country.

Women’s soccer in Afghanistan has not been able to develop organically. Taliban control of the region from 1996-2001 meant that women were not allowed to attend school or to work in public. They were certainly not permitted to play sports in public.

After the Taliban lost their iron-grip, Afghans began to reconstruct their country and their society. Soccer is a passion in Afghanistan, for men and women. Fortunately, hummel was there to help the soccer community back on it’s feet by supplying kits and goalkeeping equipment to both the men’s and women’s programs.

In 2011, filmmaker Leila Ahmadzai chronicled some of the journey of the women’s team in her inspiring documentary: A Woman’s Goal. The players wear bright, red kits, the color of Afghanistan’s famous pomegranates, proudly bearing hummel’s name.

Like many other women’s soccer programs around the world, the Afghanistan women’s program struggles with pay equity and funding, and a lack of access to training opportunities and suitable facilities. After 1996, Ghazi Stadium, Kabul’s main theater for soccer matches, was transformed into a site of horror when the Taliban took over and used it for public executions. Eventually the grass was replaced so the players “would not be stepping on to the blood of so many people.”

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In addition to overcoming the lack of support from the community and the broken infrastructure, many female players must also juggle family, work and school obligations. That is why support from allies like hummel is crucial to helping champion women in sport.

Popal now lives in Denmark and remains a staunch advocate of the women’s game. She was eager to share the details of how the first kit in the world with a hijab option came into fruition.

A crippling seven year ban on the hijab excluded many women from a sport they love. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) urged FIFA to drop the ban and, in July 2012, FIFA lifted the ban temporarily. Nike hired the advertising powerhouse Wieden-Kennedy to come up with a powerful commercial featuring a hijab-clad soccer team for their “Find Your Greatness” campaign.

In March 2014, IFAB (the male-majority law making body of FIFA) announced that head coverings would be allowed in all FIFA-sanctioned matches and should be accepted by soccer federations around the world.

Popal seized the opportunity to reach out to hummel about a new idea: to craft a sensible kit that had an option for hijab-wearing players, something that had never been done before.

I have played soccer for over 32 years (18 of those have been with hijab) and I am constantly on the lookout for light shirts to wear underneath my jersey. I purchase one of the many sports-hijabs that have exploded into the market as a separate piece. But hummel’s customized kit provides an easy solution: a baselayer with a built-in hijab.

Popal told me this idea came from discussions with her teammates. The hijab was a uniform piece that most of the girls who played in Afghanistan asked for. Sports hijabs in Afghanistan are not easily acquired. Unlike Iran, Afghanistan does not require their national team players to wear hijab. Popal’s vision was to provide ideas and work with hummel’s design team to create something in which women feel comfortable and safe while playing. She elaborates: “Most of the heavy scarves that the girls used to wear were not safe. The hijabs were heavy, too big, and another girl from the opposing team could grab the scarves accidentally so it could wrap around the neck, which is dangerous.”  

According to Popal, the hummel kit is comfortable even during the hot summer months of competition. The material is a sanitized Hydry material developed by Clariant that wicks moisture away from the skin, dries quickly and inhibits the growth of odor forming bacteria.

Simple yet genius.

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Hummel thought Popal’s idea was brilliant and completely in line with the company’s philosophy of inclusivity.

“Hummel is a team wear supplier and we aim to meet the requests from our partners – players, teams, clubs and federations,” Skovrider said. “We want to do our utmost to help all athletes to perform and their highest level.”

The design process — which included extensive research into Afghan culture, heritage, arts and crafts, and many discussions with Popal and the AFF — began in late 2014 and took nine months.

I had a few questions about the actual design of the hijab and whether it would satisfy both IFAB and conservative Afghans. There was no better advisor than Popal for this project.

“My thoughts for having a new uniform for Afghanistan were, to have something unique and different,” she said. “And to show the Afghan society that actually what we are as women. [Playing soccer] is not against the culture and religion, so by designing a kit with hijab, we give the opportunity for other girls to join the team.”

Popal tells me that some families don’t allow their daughters to play sports because they think they represent a foreign culture or might encourage girls to go against their own culture.

Hummel’s creation tells the soccer world not only that female soccer players are here to stay, but that they’re welcome. The hummel design team was cognizant that the kit design had to be on par with IFAB’s recommendations, and had to meet the requirements of an AFF brief stating the guidelines for the uniforms for both men’s and women’s teams. According to Skovrider, the new kit has been received “extremely well” in Afghanistan.  

I asked Popal, whose favorite color is the red of the AFF kit, how she felt when she first saw the result of her collaboration.

“For me it was a dream, which came true. Because I wanted a good uniform which represents my country and tradition and history and story. With this product, that dream came true.”

I received a press kit from hummel and almost teared up when I held the material in my hands. This was a kit that wordlessly exclaimed that I could play covered. For soccer players who were excluded from the sport for too long, this is so important. Players all around the world no longer have to compromise their clothing choices or scramble to find an appropriate headpiece to match. Hummel has bridged that gap.

The base layer can be used for any other sport and because it is so light, I would recommend it highly for hijab-wearing women. Many of my non-Muslim teammates were amazed by the design and the style when I showed it to them. I advised them that the kit is available online and hummel donates €15 to the Afghan women’s team for each shirt sold.

It is possible that hummel’s mantra “to change the world through sport” can be achieved by initiatives like the AFF kit. Supporting a company that offers equipment designed to respect, encourage and focus on development of women’s sports is important.

Not only is hummel sending a message about the importance of peace through sport, they are making dreams come true.  

Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and Sports Activist focusing on Muslim women in Sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a Global Sports Correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website. Her work has been featured and discussed in various media outlets. Shireen’s blog “Tales from a Hijabi Footballer”, where her passion for sport, politics and women’s issues collide, has been recognized by Sports Media for its candid discussions. She is currently working on her first book and drinks a lot of coffee. Shireen lives in Toronto, Canada with her family.