Girls, Girls, Girls

There’s no question the typical basketball uniform experienced quite the number of makeovers throughout the years. From the original padded pants to the short shorts, from the modern day long and loose to the love-it or hate-it sleeved jerseys, basketball players everywhere donned many different looks.

But for a group of Somali American girls in the Cedar-Riverside community in Minneapolis, none of the existing basketball uniform options were good enough to meet their cultural, religious and personal needs.

And so, the girls did what perhaps not many would do. They took the matter into their own hands and reached out to their coaches and mentors at the G.I.R.L.S. (Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports) program they’re all a part of.

“Myself and the coaches and the founder of the program, Fatimah Hussein, heard the girls talking about how the traditional clothing presented a major challenge for them to play basketball and be active in the way they wanted,” said Dr. Chelsey Thul, a School of Kinesiology lecturer at the University of Minnesota and a volunteer research consultant at G.I.R.L.S. since its inception in 2008.

G.I.R.L.S. itself runs like an afterschool program that offers all-female physical activities for East African girls in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, home to a very densely populated Muslim Somali community. The girls’ traditional clothing, often consisting of long skirts and flowy hijabs, made it difficult to complete a crossover and run around the court without something coming undone.

After learning of this challenge over two years ago, Dr. Thul connected with Dr. Elizabeth Bye, a department head in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “I thought it sounded like a great project,” Dr. Bye said. “And we went from there.”

With Dr. Bye’s undergraduate apparel design students on board and money received from a grant, the collaboration began to create a brand new basketball uniform to fit the young ladies’ needs.

And it truly was a collaboration in every sense of the word.

“The most exciting and powerful part of the journey for me was the true collaboration that we had with the community,” Dr. Thul said. “The community, the girls, their parents were involved in every step of the way.”

The girls sat in on leadership meetings, helped design the uniforms, and debuted the finished garments at a fashion show in June. Their parents served as community liaisons and took part in several gallery walks and feedback events. Dr. Bye’s students helped to sketch the original and final designs. The greater Cedar-Riverside community sewed the actual garments. Everyone attended the fashion show—even Minnesota Senator Kari Dziedic, who’s doing what she can to license the clothing and potentially make it something the community manufactures and produces for other athletes.

The behind-the-scenes team chemistry can now be seen on the court in the form of the red Lady Warrior uniforms as well as the striped athletic wear.

“Basketball has been the one sport that the girls have played throughout the years,” said Salma Hussein, a former participant in the G.I.R.L.S. program and now a member of the leadership team.

Hussein said scheduling for the Lady Warriors travel team is in the works, so the unique uniforms have yet to debut in a game. But that didn’t stop people from hearing about them.

“One of my graduate students was at home in China visiting, and she said it was even in the local newspaper there,” said Dr. Bye. “It’s really exciting that it had so much visibility.”

Both Dr. Bye and Dr. Thul said they’ve had requests from multiple schools and teams (as well as older women in the community!) requesting when and where they can get their hands on the athletic wear for the Muslim girls on their rosters. Put simply, they’re not ready for mass production just yet.

But the project did unveil there is a need for a growing demographic of both young and old female Muslim athletes who want athletic wear that’s comfortable, modest and cute. What the girls at G.I.R.L.S. envisioned is just the beginning.

“For [the girls], it wasn’t only creating the clothes—I mean they loved that, and that was exciting, and how fun it was to be a fashion designer! But more than that, they knew the deep meaning and the impact these clothes would not only have on their lives, but the potential impact they could have on so many other girls’ lives,” Dr. Thul said. “When you hear the girls talk about that part and see their faces light up to know as a 12-, 13-year-old girl that they are truly making a difference, it’s incredible and very powerful.”

Photos courtesy of Warren Bruland