Nike released a web-based commercial this week that displayed Arab women athletes engaging in various sports including boxing, ice skating and fencing in attempts to dispel certain stereotypes of Islamic women mostly staying at home, while only leaving the house if they are escorted by male.
The commercial is narrated in Arabic and aimed at Middle Eastern audiences. It begins with a women dressed in jogging gear nervously peering out her doorway while adjusting her hijab.
As she runs down the street she receives judgmental stares from bystanders, both men and women, who are clearly meant to be surprised by seeing a female engage in such activities. The narrator says in Arabic, “What will they say about you? Maybe they’ll say you exceeded all expectations.”
The ad continues and shows women athletes training, including one women running across rooftops, as well as female boxers in the ring. A spokesperson for the International Red Cross in Iraq praised the commercial for addressing the social norm issues that Middle Eastern women face in a world dominated by Islamic values.
“An ad (which) touches on the insecurities of women in a society digs deeper and becomes an empowerment tool rather than just a product,” Sara al-Zawqari, a spokeswoman for the International Red Cross in Iraq, wrote on her Twitter page.
Other viewers, however, had a more negative outlook on the Nike commercial and its portrayal of women athletes.
“I think this ad was an utter fail,” said Nada Sahimi on the company’s Instagram page.
“This is not the true representation of Arab, Muslim women. We do not wear a hijab and go running in the streets, shame on Nike,” she said.
Filmed in the older, rundown suburbs of the glitzy Gulf Arab emirate of Dubai, the ad reflects the struggles faced not only by women across the region but also by some of its own stars.
Women exercising in public is a rare sight in much of the region and women-only gyms are few, are not fully equipped for different sports and are often more expensive than gyms for men.
In Saudi Arabia, physical education is prohibited in all-girls public schools and women’s gyms remain illegal in the kingdom because female athleticism is deemed un-Islamic.
Speaking to the Okaz newspaper this month, Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar said the government would soon provide female gyms with licenses, citing public health reasons and not women’s empowerment.
Despite the message of empowering women to be free and have the same rights as men in Islamic countries, even women criticized Nike for not providing “hijabs and modest workout gear” for women.”
Although most of the comments seem to be positive, there are still negative reactions to the 1:21 spot. Some commenters question Nike’s business interests, prejudice in the region, and the price of the company’s clothing. Others questioned why the company hasn’t made “modest athletic workout gear.”
“It’s great ad no doubt; love the message. But kinda hypocritical for Nike to have us in ads but have yet to make hijabs and modest athletic workout gear for us. R we just props in your ads,” Rahaf Khatib asked on Facebook.
On Youtube a commenter quoted a verse from the Hadith, which seems to state that women who do not dress modestly will never enter Paradise nor will they “smell its fragrance”.
The comment roughly translated reads, “The Messenger of Allah bless him (Two classes of people of my fire has not yet: scantily dressed women, Mailat Mmellat Oarhama, on their heads like Osnmh divination, do not enter Paradise or even smell its fragrance (translated from Arabic).”
The direct quote the comment seems to be derived from, as written in the Hadith is as follows:
“There are two types of people who will be punished in Hell and whom I have not yet seen: men who have whips like the tails of cows and they beat people with them, and women who are dressed yet naked who will be inclined [to evil] and make others incline [towards it]; their heads are like the inclined humps of camels. They will not enter Paradise and they will not smell its fragrance which is smelt from such and such a distance (i.e. from a great distance).”
The overarching message of this commercial is not only about promoting the idea of empowering women in Islamic countries, but rather the fact that women in Muslim societies are lacking basic freedoms that have long prevailed in the modern world.
The commercial, and the reactions to it, portray the struggle of women in Islamic cultures who fear or face resistance from their family for engaging in everyday activities that men are freely able to enjoy. As is stated regarding the lack of freedom for women in Saudi Arabia, “Women’s gyms remain illegal in the kingdom because female athleticism is deemed un-Islamic.”
A core takeaway from Nike’s commercial is the struggle that women in the Islamic world are still very far away from taking advantage of common freedoms enjoyed by their peers in the rest of the world. Although there are brave female athletes who are featured in the ad, it appears these same women would not be able to enter a Starbucks in Saudi Arabia, which features a sign on the door saying, “PLEASE NO ENTRY FOR LADIES ONLY SEND YOUR DRIVER TO ORDER THANK YOU.”
— Manar N (@manarn8) February 1, 2016