A Performance Hijab for the Olympics - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Entrepreneur Melissa Scott is making a hijab for the modern athlete — and the modern world.
SourcePhotographs by Christina Gandolfo for OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because modest women compete too.

By Allison Yates

When Melissa Scott went on a business trip to Central Asia and the Middle East in 2015, she didn’t anticipate designing a makeshift hijab. 

The 52-year-old Michigan native isn’t Muslim, or the most obvious person to launch an activewear brand. But when it comes to sports, she knows her stuff. She served on the Japanese Olympic Committee in 1992, refereed for USA Cycling and USA Rowing, coached rowing Olympians in the early 2000s and later worked in marketing and sponsorships internationally.

When she embarked on this particular trip to scout locations for speed skating events, she took a hijab with her for cultural consideration. Scott was born deaf and wears hearing aids. She also wears glasses. The hijab she’d brought pushed against both of those, and the pressure caused migraines. 

So one night in a hotel room in Kazakhstan she got creative. She took her existing hijab, cut out ear holes and sewed in a pocket with the basic hotel sewing kit. It did the trick, and she wore it for the rest of her trip. It proved effective while Scott was running or playing pickup soccer. While she was working, several female athletes noticed and kept asking if she’d make a hijab just like hers for their training.

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The result was what she calls the “first-ever hijab for the digital era,” an athletic performance hijab that includes an interior pocket and ear holes for cellphone or Bluetooth earbuds, or tools like stethoscopes, earpieces, glasses or hearing aids. It took off. Then the requests for more modest activewear kept coming. By 2016 Scott was selling as a private label, and she officially launched MODEFYwear in 2017. The brand targets women who want to cover up for any reason, but specifically “modest women” — typically Muslim, Orthodox Jewish and Pentecostal Christian. 

I found a desperate void that needed to be filled.

Melissa Scott

Backed by investors including TV chef Cat Cora, True Religion founder Kym Gold and award-winning producer Nicole Ehrlich, the brand now sells swim dresses, surfwear, swim skirts, athletic skirts, arm sleeves, hijabs and kurtas, and soon it will debut an athletic snood. After that, the company will start designing kurtas and saris.

MODEFYwear sells to professional athletes and everyday women across the U.S., as well as the Iranian women’s surfing team, Oman’s track and field athletes and the Israeli women’s basketball team. Scott expects her threads to be represented by several athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and she’s working on deals with entire teams. While the company is still small, Scott estimates it’s manufacturing around 1 million pieces a year and growing. She expects to double the company’s $3.9 million average revenue this year. MODEFYwear’s eight employees design and manufacture all products in Los Angeles.

The company’s target audience has historically experienced structural and logistical barriers to entering the athletic world. Scott says that there are many fabrics and designs of modest athletic wear that simply aren’t “conducive to performance.” A cotton or polyester hijab in the summer heat is not only going to be painful and feel like a wet rag, but “it will slow you down,” says Scott. In a profession where every millisecond counts, the wrong uniform could be the difference between winning and losing. Not to mention, the lack of appropriate training gear kept many women away from sports. 

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Scott with Jesus Torres, director of production.

“Years ago, you had to either compromise your desire to be athletic or your desire to be religiously observant. Today you don’t,” says Krystal Riley, a Pentecostal runner and host of the podcast In a Skirt, which celebrates what she refers to as “unconventional” athletes. Riley didn’t grow up playing sports because she didn’t have anything appropriate to train in. In fact, it wasn’t until 2016 — when she was 33 years old — that she signed up for her first race. She was still nervous; she didn’t think she looked like a “runner.”

But modest activewear like MODEFYwear’s pieces are “giving people the power to get out there and be who they are regardless of how they look, or what they wear, or what they feel is different about them,” says Riley, who wears MODEFYwear’s athletic skirts for running.

Scott has also taken criticism for creating a “political tsunami” by marketing to both Muslims and Jews, to which she says: “It’s not about politics, it’s about empowering each other to be their best in sports.” She’s gotten pushback on authenticity too: She’s not a modest woman like her customers. Her background may be different, but she says, “I found a desperate void that needed to be filled.”

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One night in a hotel room in Kazakhstan she got creative. She took her existing hijab, cut out ear holes and sewed in a pocket with the basic hotel sewing kit. The result was what she calls the “first-ever hijab for the digital era.”

Companies like Capsters, Hummel, Asiya and ResportOn had been making sports hijabs for decades, but 2017 saw MODEFYwear’s launch and the first sports hijab from Nike. Scott’s customers stick with her either because of the fit or modesty beliefs: It’s not ideal to have a giant swoosh on religious attire. 

Nike has the budget and capacity to sell on a much larger global scale than MODEFYwear, but Scott is confident her company took the time and effort to design a hijab with features that female athletes need. And it has broader applications, including for the hearing-impaired and doctors who need holes for stethoscopes. 

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Whether it is MODEFYwear or Nike, the products — and the women who wear them — can have “emotional and psychological impact” on young women, says writer and sports activist Shireen Ahmed. “You’ve excluded girls for a generation. There are thousands of girls who never saw themselves in those spaces.”

Scott and her team are pushing back on the notion that hijabs, snoods and long skirts aren’t safe in athletics. They plan to pitch their case with workshops at national coaches’ conferences, and draft new model codes and guidelines allowing for modest wear. Scott calls soccer federation rules that ban certain religious attire “ridiculous.”

In her few free hours, you can find Scott cycling, rowing or boating — and spending time with her 12-year-old daughter, Akerke. But the focus for Scott will continue to be on giving women the opportunity to thrive in sweaty situations, whether it’s a surfing vacation or the global showcase of the Olympics.

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