Growing up a Somali girl in Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, Muna Mohamed developed an uncommon passion for basketball. Playing in high school, she wore long-sleeved shirts under her jersey and wrapped her hijab so it wouldn't flow too much. Even so, some referees deemed it a safety hazard.
When she went on to coach in her neighborhood, she noticed that some of her players grew frustrated with their hijabs falling off and interfering with their game. It reminded her how she had felt having to choose between observing her faith and playing the game she loved.
"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," she said.
It inspired Mohamed to start Kalsoni, a modest activewear brand that she said helps Muslim women live a healthy lifestyle. In just a few years she has progressed from pop-up shops to launching a website and selling her clothes at local retailers such as REI.
In creating a product marketed to Muslim women in the East African community, it was important to maintain a sense of cultural expression, Mohamed said. She settled on the Somali word "Kalsoni," which means confidence — a feeling she said is crucial for any Muslim woman.
"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] a sense of confidence," she said.
Mohamed's personal experience as an athlete and researcher gives her a unique perspective on design. While well-known brands such as Nike and Lululemon carry versions of modest athletic and leisure wear, she said they fall short of what Muslim women want.
"They often don't understand the type of hijabs that you need to create to cater to all Muslims," she said. "That's why I have the different versatile hijabs, from sports shawls to the sports hijab, for everyone."
Customers can also purchase loose-fitting tunics of different lengths and colors, with zippers on the bottom of both sides to allow for more mobility. There are unisex long-sleeve shirts to give men options.
Mohamed said American lifestyles are more sedentary and exacerbate cardiovascular issues and high blood pressure, issues for many East African women. Her mother told her that people in Somalia are naturally 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.
While Mohamed was pursuing a degree in exercise science at the University of Minnesota in 2013, she participated in a research project that aimed to create culturally appropriate activewear. The project culminated in a fashion show where apparel design students and local tailors created the clothes imagined by the young participants.
With money left over from the program, she developed a sports uniform in collaboration with Jennifer Weber, co-founder and director of the Cedar Riverside Athletics Enrichment Program.
While pursuing a master's degree in kinesiology at the U, Mohamed was a research assistant on another U study that introduced healthy ways of living for East African women and their daughters. It concluded that a lack of both culturally sensitive clothing and programming was preventing Muslim women from pursuing physical activity.
"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," she said.
In 2019, Mohamed pitched her business for the MN Cup, an annual startup competition hosted by the U's Carlson School of Management that awards hundreds of thousands of dollars to entrepreneurs. She participated in business accelerators and incubator programs, where she surveyed potential customers about the fabrics they preferred and the lengths they favored.
Sourcing the fabrics was an arduous process. After finding a store in the Twin Cities that sold the materials she needed, she took sketches of her outfits to a Somali mall and paid a tailor to create a prototype. Then she located a local manufacturer that matched her values as well as price points, logistics and quantities.
Mohamed started selling the Kalsoni brand at local pop-up shops starting in 2020. She formed a pop-up partnership with Life Time Fitness in Fridley after explaining to the manager how hard it was for many of the gym's Muslim clients to find comfortable workout clothes. Several non-Muslim members had complained about Muslim women in the gym or pool areas wearing clothing they felt wasn't sanitary or could cause drowning.
Beside forming relationships with REI, Life Time Fitness and the Hype, a streetwear retailer in Minneapolis, Mohamed has also partnered with the national nonprofit Girls on the Run, providing customized sports hijabs for young Muslims.
Kalsoni launched its website this year with a list of products, some named for Mohamed's peers and the young women she once coached who affectionately refer to her as Coach Muna. Even before selling her products online, she was getting international inquiries.
"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."
About the partnership
This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newspaper dedicated to covering Minnesota's immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for to receive Sahan's free newsletter in your inbox.