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Dutch Designer Cindy Van Den Bremen: Inspiration Behind the Sports Hijab

Designer Cindy van den Bremen. [Photo credit: Coco Broeken]

Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen invented the first sport hijab nearly 17 years ago when she discovered that a girl was being expelled from gym class due to her supposedly unsafe hijab. Since then, Cindy has crafted four sport hijab designs…and she established the brand Capsters – now a company empowering Muslim women and girls through sports worldwide. 

The hijab seems like an unusual choice for a young designer from The Netherlands to focus on. How did your interest come about?  

From a young age I’ve always been interested in other cultures and religions. Raised in a warm social humanist family, I related to minorities in my country. The veil was a hot topic in the 1990s and hijabs ended up at the center of fiery discussions connected to politics and social problems such as integration of the Muslim Diaspora in the West. Many Dutch people thought there was no need to cover one’s self in The Netherlands or any Western country. I decided to research the sensitive matter of veiling.

For my university graduate project, I conducted field research, studied media coverage and read all the Quran verses that addressed the veil. The general attitude in Dutch media, and in discussions with non-Muslims, often emphasized the oppression of Muslim women by traditional values. To my surprise, the Muslim women that I met were well-educated, outspoken, often very ambitious and not traditional. They made their own choice to cover and were not forced by their father, brothers or husband. Their story was untold and they were suffering from the negative connotations connected with the hijab and public opinion. I decided to make a book of these inspiring women, accompanied by stories I found on the personal choice of covering. 

How did some of these ‘negative connotations’ develop?

In the 1960s, many women in my country used to wear a headscarf, influenced by the latest fashion brought by celebrities like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly who wore a veil and sunglasses in convertibles. But, when the wives of the Turkish and Moroccan guest employees entered The Netherlands in the early 1970s with their colorful outfits and scarves wrapped around their heads, women in The Netherlands didn’t want to be associated with the headscarf and religious beliefs. 

From that moment, women with headscarves were seen as uneducated, isolated, not able to communicate in Dutch and walking 10 meters behind their husbands. All in all, not a very emancipated image of covered women. This view of people who wear the veil often stands in the way of covered women to fully participate in society. 

When did you move from research to making practical designs?

During my research I stumbled upon the case of a girl being expelled from gym class. The teacher thought the hijab was not safe. Although the parents tried to resolve the issue with the teacher and the principal, even sewing the loose ends together so no pins were used to hold the scarf in place, they couldn’t arrive at a solution. The case went to court and the girl even performed a roll-over to show the hijab was safe. The hijab could be forbidden in gym class if a teacher decided to oppose it for safety reasons. As an alternative, it was suggested the girls could wear a swimming cap and turtleneck to cover the same areas.

I laughed at this solution and at the same time sympathized with the girls: Can you imagine during adolescence having to wear a swimming cap in gym class? Not being able to release your warmth and the sweat underneath it, resulting in a big red face? I realized it was not about the covering itself but about the way the girls were covered. As a designer I could solve that. 

How did you develop the design?

I designed four different sport hijabs for indoor and outdoor sports. I looked at the trends in current sports fashion. I brought my sketches to the girls and women that I had spoken to before and asked for feedback. This is called co-design, where the users become part of the design process. For me there is no other way to design. 

In June 1999, I presented four designs for my final graduate project at Design Academy Eindhoven and became the inventor of the sport hijab. 

What kind of response did the sport hijab receive? Would you say you struck a chord?

Journalists I had worked with during my research wrote about my sport hijabs. It became national news: in papers, magazines, television and radio shows. International Institute of Islam in a Modern World (ISIM) invited me to write a piece for international distribution. I received orders from school principals, gym teachers, girls themselves, and also relatives who wanted to order a sport hijab for their daughter, niece or cousin.

I also received mail from around the world – from Malaysia to Canada. A student at New York University wrote me: “with your designs I can show I’m willing to integrate, yet within my own norms and values.” This was exactly what I had intended.  By integrating the sport hijab into the full outfit, it would help overcome negative perceptions attached to the hijab in the West. 

Women who are not used to wearing the comfortable designs of Capsters are often surprised and check whether their hijab is still on, because feeling the wind blowing through their hair again through the mesh structure is a sensation they haven’t felt in years. Usually girls and women wear an undercover and a tight shawl around their head, secured with pins or knots to keep the hijab in place. 

When did you decide to start your own company, Capsters? 

I never had the intention to start a hijab business or company. I just wanted to help one Dutch girl with her hijab in gym class. Because my motives were not commercially driven, I did not initially think of launching my own brand or company. I approached some big sport brands but one thought I should produce them myself (afraid to burn their fingers on this hot issue, perhaps). Another brand did sell an outdoor sport hijab as part of their winter collection. I made it from fleece to resemble a hood and scarf in one. My father actually wears this design to bike in the winter when it’s cold in The Netherlands.

Since I had four designs for sport hijabs, with orders coming in for all of them, I didn’t want to only have one as part of a winter sport collection. So I decided to create a brand of my own…little did I know what I was getting myself into. I’m glad I was naive about the process, because otherwise I would have never even tried, knowing what I know now. It took me two years to launch the brand Capsters in 2001. In 2008 the brand Capsters became a Limited company which I founded together with business partner Karin Mastenbroek.  Today, we sell in over 14 countries worldwide.

Did interest in Capsters and the sports hijab continue?

Every time the hijab was in the news, journalists would contact me. I published the book from my research on veiling called ‘Hoofddoeken’ (hijabs in Dutch) and organized a low-key traveling exhibition at libraries and community centers in The Netherlands. We had 25 pictures from the book, made by Iranian photographer Giti Entezami, accompanied by quotes. My aim was to counter prejudice and stereotypes of the oppressed Muslim woman—to show them as individuals with their own reasons for covering or not; that there is not a homogeneous group of hijab wearers. People often assumed I was a Muslim hijabi, but I don’t wear a hijab nor am I religious. I just want to show that as a social designer you can provide solutions and build bridges through design.

Capsters received a Good Design Award in Japan and after the exhibition Safe: Design takes on risk in 2006, the Capsters sport hijabs became part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

In addition to your designs, what are some of the other ways you try to break down stereotypes? 

We work with role models to inspire other women and girls that still have to overcome barriers to practice the sport they love. Examples are Rahaf Khatib, a marathon runner who was the first Muslim woman cover finalist for Runners World and Indira Kaljo, a talented basketball player who could not compete internationally due to restrictions by FIBA (International Basketball Federation). She moved to Saudi Arabia instead to train girls in basketball in private schools. We support Aida Othman, our role model in Dubai who runs ultra-marathons worldwide! We embrace these women and what they stand for by supporting them with our Capsters designs, asking them for feedback to improve upon the designs, and showcasing them through social media.

In 2012, we worked with Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, Vice President of FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) who is responsible for the development of women’s football in Asia. We convinced the FIFA medical committee to lift their 5-year hijab ban on the football field by developing the safe football design with a Velcro closing that releases quickly when pulled from behind. FIFA now recommends the Capsters Football as a safe hijab on the football field.

What are some of the challenges Capsters and hijab wearers still face?

Lots of girls and women worldwide still face barriers due to their hijab. Even though we’ve proven there is a safe alternative, some sports organizations still have rules and regulations that prevent participation of Muslim women who want to cover themselves. In my opinion it is politics and xenophobia that causes these limits, since we’ve solved the issue of safety. 

One of the biggest arguments we hear against hijabs is that allowing them would oppress women, but excluding these women, whether it is their own choice to cover themselves or not, will do just that.

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