by Abdirahman Mohamed
Tuesday May 23, 2023
The U.S. lifestyle makes it harder for East African women to stay fit, Muna says. The most pressing needs are culturally sensitive clothing and programming.
Muna Mohamed poses with her Kalsoni activewear line at the REI store in Roseville, Minnesota, in 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Kalsoni
Growing up as a Somali girl in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Muna Mohamed took on an uncommon passion for basketball. While it isn’t unusual to see East African women shooting hoops today, Muna spent many years as the only girl on the court, holding her own against the boys. In looking to share that passion, Muna would go on to coach in her old neighborhood and work to break the barriers that have often kept young Muslim women out of the game.
Years later, when her family moved to South St. Paul, Muna joined her school’s basketball team. She pursued her love of the sport all the way to playing semi-professional ball with the TC Elite.
While coaching, Muna observed that some of her players grew frustrated with their hijabs falling off and interfering with their game. This made her recall her own experience of feeling as though she had to choose between properly observing her faith and playing the game she loved.
Playing high school basketball, Muna wore long sleeved shirts under her jersey and wrapped her hijab in a way that it wouldn’t flow too much. Still, it didn’t seem modest enough for her beliefs. She also recalls referees who singled her out for wearing the hijab, deeming it a safety hazard.
“I just got sad that the girls were struggling. I saw myself in them,” she said. “If I could go back and look at what I wore, I would’ve never worn it, but I only did it for the game of basketball and I wish there was someone there advocating for me.”
Realizing that her players were struggling with the same issue inspired Muna to launch Kalsoni, a modest activewear brand that helps Muslim women feel confident while living a healthy lifestyle. In just a few years, Muna has progressed from promoting her brand by word of mouth and holding popup shops to now launching her website and selling her clothes at local retailers such as REI.
The first key moment came while Muna was pursuing her degree in Exercise Science at the University of Minnesota in 2013. She took part in a research project that aimed to create culturally appropriate activewear. The GIRLS Community co-design project initiated by the University of Minnesota sought the feedback of 25 local girls of East African background. A large part of the project’s goals was to include community input and empower community members to find a solution that fit the needs of young athletes.
The project culminated in a fashion show where apparel design students and local tailors created the clothes imagined by the young participants. The findings were published in the Fashion Studies Journal with photos of the process.
With money left over from the program, Muna developed a sports uniform in collaboration with Jennifer Weber, co-founder and director of the Cedar Riverside Athletics Enrichment Program. That led in turn to the founding of the Lady Warriors, the neighborhood’s first traveling basketball team and a member of the Amateur Athletic Union.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Muna pursued a master’s in Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, continuing her work in the area of modest activewear in order to encourage people to be more physically active, and healthier.
“That’s where my passion lies,” she said.
Muna worked as a graduate research assistant on another university study that introduced different healthy ways of living for East African women and their daughters. As in the previous study, participants were given the opportunity to design and produce their own culturally affirming activewear.
Muna and her colleagues concluded that there were two simple issues that prevented local Muslim women from maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
“The top two barriers to sports and physical activity was lack of culturally sensitive clothing and also a lack of culturally sensitive programming,” she explained. “A lot of the fitness spaces don’t have culturally inclusive spaces, where there’s an understanding that some women need an all-woman space.”
Many East African women suffer from, or are at risk of, cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure, Muna said. She believes that living in the West has exacerbated these issues because many people live a more sedentary lifestyle than they would have in their native countries.
Muna’s mother often told her that people in Somalia didn’t have to go out of their way to be healthy because of their daily activity level. “We would always be walking or we would always be on the move, but over here is a different reality,” she said.
It was interest from community members that helped turn Muna’s academic research into a business. Several young women were aware of these unique outfits, but there was nowhere for the average consumer to buy them.
In creating the brand for a product marketed to Muslim women in the East African community, it was important to maintain a sense of cultural expression. She settled on the Somali word kalsoni, which translates to “confidence,” a feeling that Muna said is crucial for any Muslim woman working on her physical fitness.
“I realized we shouldn’t run away from our culture and I wanted a word that represented what I was, who the girls were, and whether we’re on the court or off the court, there was a sense of confidence,” she said. That is especially true for Black Muslim women.
Muna’s personal experience as an athlete and researcher gives her a unique perspective on design. While well-known athletic brands such as Nike and Lululemon carry their own versions of modest athleisure wear, Muna believes that they fall short of what Muslim women need.
“They often don’t understand the type of hijabs that you need to create to cater to all Muslims,” she said. “That’s whyI have the different versatile hijabs from sports shawls to the sports hijab for everyone.”
In addition to Kalsoni’s pullover sports hijab, there also is a sports shawl option that looks similar to the shawls Muslim women are used to wearing. Both contain a headband that helps keep the hijabs secure, and are made from breathable materials.
Customers also can also purchase loose-fitting tunics of varying lengths with zippers on bottom of both sides to allow for more mobility. The tunics come in separate colors such as blue, rose, plum, and gray. There are also unisex long sleeve shirts to give men options.
In 2019, Muna was a student finalist in the MN Cup, an annual startup competition hosted by the university’s Carlson School of Management that awards hundreds of thousands of dollars to entrepreneurs. This was the first time she publicly pitched the business. She went on to participate in many business accelerators and incubator programs such as Target Accelerator Cohort in 2020 and REI in 2021, where she was a Embark Program Finalist, recognition that she took as a validation of her idea.
Based on her experience as a researcher, Muna knew that building a product line wouldn’t come quickly. She surveyed potential customers about the sort of fabrics they preferred and what length of clothing they were most comfortable wearing. She knew she would have to offer a range of items because everyone’s definition of modesty is different.
Sourcing the fabrics was also an arduous process. After finding a fabric store in the Twin Cities that sold the materials she needed, she took her sketches of her outfits to a Somali mall and paid a tailor to create a prototype. Then it was on to finding a manufacturer that not only matched Muna’s needs on price, logistics and quantities, but also her values.
Her search for a manufacturing partner went global, but she found a local company that met all her needs.
“Mostly I looked for the culture, how they treated their employees, their work culture, and if my missions and my values align with them,” she said.
She started selling the Kalsoni brand at local pop up shops starting in 2020.
Muna held one pop up partnership with Lifetime Fitness in Fridley after sheconnected with the local manager. She explained to him the difficulties that many of the gym’s Muslim clients faced comfortable clothes to work out in.
Several non-Muslim members had complained about Muslim women being in the gym or pool areas wearing clothing that they felt wasn’t sanitary, or were so loose that they could cause drowning. Muna made the case that Lifetime should partner with herto give their many Muslim members the opportunity to purchase clothing they could work out or swim in.
Having relationships with businesses such as REI, Lifetime Fitness and the Hype, a streetwear retailer located in Minneapolis, highlights Muna’s plans to ensure Kalsoni’s success through partnerships with local and national companies. Relationships, she learned, make or break a business.
Kalsoni also partnered with Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to boosting confidence in girls through physical activity and supporting their emotional health. Through this partnership, Kalsoni provided customized sports hijabs for young Muslims.
Kalsoni launched its website earlier this year with a list of products for direct purchase. Items are named after some of Muna’s peers and the young women she once coached who affectionately refer to her as Coach Muna.
Even before selling her product online, she received international inquiries on her product.
“I’ve sold to folks in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and now getting orders from South Africa and Kenya,” she said. “It was nice to see it validated in Minnesota, but then it was a unique opportunity when folks were reaching out to me.”
There are plenty of challenges ahead. Sometimes deadlines aren’t met and goals need to be shifted. The road to building something truly great, she knows, will be long.