New ad sparks debate, but goes viral for showing the way

By Karan Kaushik

A new ad from sports apparel giant Nike which shows Arab women running and playing various sports including fencing, boxing and rollerskating is taking the internet by storm. Though it has been criticized by Arab women and men who are part of the Muslim patriarchy in the country, the ad will surely encourage many more women to break barriers and step out in the field to test their athletic skills.

The ad begins with a woman adjusting her veil before going for a run in the streets. The company has faced a backlash from Arab women who say that they do not wear a hijab and go running in the streets, but there is a handful who do and chances are high that this first group is blind to their existence. Also, an ad may choose to be idealistic rather than realistic in its content, though that argument may be a secondary one in this context.

Shot in the suburbs of Dubai, it was shared 75,000 times on Twitter and viewed almost 400,000 times on YouTube within 48 hours.

The ad, in fact, is a fine attempt at breaking stereotypes about Arab women leading home-bound lives. Sara-al-Zawqari, a spokeswoman for the International Red Cross in Iraq took to Twitter, to applaud the effort. She wrote: “An ad (which) touches on the insecurities of women in a society digs deeper and becomes an empowerment tool rather than just a product.”

Given that the region depicted here is the Middle-East, it is also a welcome step specially when one does not see women exercising in public quite often. In Saudi Arabia, physical education is prohibited for girls in schools and women’s gyms remain illegal because female athleticism is considered un-Islamic in the kingdom.

Therefore, the Nike television spot may open several doors for Arab women or at least inspire them to make pursuing excellence—physical, mental and spiritual—a value in their lives, besides tapping into a new and emerging market. Notable female athletes from Iraq and Saudi Arabia include Sarah Attar, Cariman Abu al-Jadail, Sozi Dilshad and Dana Hussain Abdul-Razak.

So although not everyone agrees with the depiction of Arab women in this ad, the message it shares is worthy of appreciation.