End Of Religious Headwear Rule Says Athletes Are More Than Their Uniforms

Noor Alexandria Abukaram poses in July 2020. Photo courtesy of Haute Hijab

(RNS) — When she was not allowed to play in her second volleyball game of the season, 14-year-old Najah Aqeel never thought her pushback would knock down nearly every obstacle in her way, like a bowling ball knocking over pin after pin.

Last September, the ninth-grader at Valor College Prep in Nashville, Tennessee, was pulled from the court after an official pointed out that her coach had not provided a waiver for her to play while wearing her hijab, or religious headscarf. When she was told she couldn’t play, Najah started crying. She received support from her family and teammates but still felt hurt. Then she began to push back.

Until this year, most schools, states and national high school athletic associations had typically forbidden religious headwear, citing safety concerns, unless a student or coach had applied for a waiver. No waiver, no play.

But Najah argued that her hijab wasn’t a safety concern, as she wore it as a closely wrapped bun. “It wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone,” she told me in an interview last fall. 

She and her family decided that the waiver rule had to get changed, not only in her own school district, but across the state.

Because she (with the support of her team) stood up against the rule, the National Federation of State High School Associations, one of the main associations overseeing high school sports, eliminated the waiver requirement for religious headwear, including hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, for the fall sports of field hockey, soccer and volleyball once their seasons concluded.

The magnitude of this step is not lost on me. In my two decades of covering Muslims in America, I've reported on a multitude of hijab bans, after having to obtain permission as a young girl to wear sweats in gym class and when I briefly played basketball and ran track, due to Islamic modest dress guidelines, and for my daughter to do the same decades later.

I've had to provide a letter to wear my own hijab in my driver’s license and passport photos as an adult. It’s something many Muslim girls and women are used to doing.

Pressure for change has been building. Last year, high school cross-country runner Noor Alexandria Abukaram was disqualified by the Ohio High School Athletic Association as she was running a 5K (and beating her personal record), because her coach hadn’t gotten a waiver for her to run in her Nike hijab, which is designed specifically for competitive running.

Noor launched the “Let Noor Run” initiative to address “discrimination Muslim women face in sport and advocating for policy changes that promote inclusivity,” as reported in this Religion News Service story last year.

Bilqis Abdul Qaadir, a top-ranked high school and college basketball player, was denied from playing in the International Basketball Federation, or FIBA, which at the time didn’t allow headwear. That rule changed in 2017 because of persistent advocating by Qaadir and several other athletes and religious groups, including Darsh Preet Singh, the first turbaned basketball player in the NCAA. 

It should be a no-brainer. Why should a high school or college athlete need to seek permission to wear a hijab, a turban or whatever is her religious observance? 

My employer, the fashion company Haute Hijab, launched a “Can’t Ban Us” campaign last fall as Najah’s story broke to work with athletes and athletic associations to educate about the religious significance and mechanics of hijab and why it shouldn't deter anyone from participating in team or individual sports.

In December, Haute Hijab met with Lindsey Atkinson, director of sports at the National Federation of State High School Associations and liaison to the volleyball rules committee, to present information about hijab, hijab accessories (pins), how it is worn, fabrics used, the construction of sports hijab and how risk factors regarding hijab have been overblown.

In the weeks since we met, the federation's volleyball rules committee voted unanimously to change its rules regarding religious head coverings. Soon after, field hockey and soccer followed suit. Hopefully the federation's winter and spring sports rules committees will continue the trajectory.

I asked Theresia Wynns, director of sports and officials with the federation, why the tide is shifting now, after so many years. “I think the momentum has come out of a result of more athletes who are religious and wanting to show their religious belief in wearing whatever … they need to wear for that.

“Bottom line, (the message is) ‘I have a right to play, and I have a right to honor and respect my religion,’” Wynns said.

The fierce young women who have pushed for their right to play wearing hijab are to whom these long-fought-for victories belong. Bilqis’ reprieve from FIBA came three years too late, but she is determined not to let what happened to her happen to other Muslims.

And Najah? At her recent news conference, she said she hoped her experience would be one of “many steppingstones to stop discrimination."

It sometimes feels as if the only time we discuss Muslim women is when we are talking about objections to hijab, when that is just one part of multiple narratives. In the athletic world, this is what activist and journalist Shireen Ahmed called, in a 2016 article for The Daily Beast, reducing “an athlete to her outfit.” Hijab-wearing women are just stand-in, however, for women who suffer discrimination for Muslim dress.

“I’d like to send a message out there to all the women that our voices matter," Najah said. “We need to stand up for our beliefs and values.”

(Dilshad D. Ali is a journalist and blog editor for the website Haute Hijab. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

Political scientist Henry Brady explores how trust has broken down in the U.S. and what we can do about it.
"Intel, which ranked second on the REDI Index last year, overtook Google, last year's top company, by 10 points in 2021. Intel’s public conference on religious inclusion earned it the extra boost."
"The letter says its signers feel compelled to condemn such expressions, "just as many Muslim leaders have felt the need to denounce distorted, violent versions of their faith" in previous years."
During the coronavirus pandemic, Moncayo has led the food distribution program through Mosaic West Queens Church in the Sunnyside neighborhood.
Raja writes about the usefulness or appropriateness of the term "BIPOC" - Black, Indigenous, People of Color- in discourse about race and justice, and how it relates to and reflects the politics of race and racism in the United States.
The river has been important since the dawn of civilization and has served as a commercial hub and lifeline for countless peoples over many millennia. Yet there has always seemed to be a justice that was out of reach for some.
"Many synagogues are leaning into the Purim tradition of giving gifts to friends and the poor— a custom known as “mishloach manot.”
"We know through surveys that people are more likely to like Muslims if they know one personally. But because only about 1% of Americans practice the Islamic faith, many people just don’t come into contact with any Muslims."
Purim tells the tale of Esther, an orphaned girl-turned-queen, how she married King Achashverosh, then saved the entire Jewish community in the ancient Persian city of Shushan, through her bravery and wit.
Higher education remains highly unequal and racial divides persist. How can these realities be explained in a context defined by wokeness?
There are so many forces that pull people apart from one another. Institutions and systems and ways of thinking that want us to feel separated, broken, helpless, and quick to capitalize on moments of weakness. The very thing that brings out...
Others noted Rihanna chose to display Ganesh on Feb. 15, the day Hindus celebrate as Ganesh's birthday, or Ganesh Jayanti. The god of beginnings, Ganesh is honored before starting a business or major project.
Until this year, most schools, states and national high school athletic associations had typically forbidden religious headwear, citing safety concerns, unless a student or coach had applied for a waiver. No waiver, no play.
Do a quick Google or YouTube search for tarot, and you’ll find the two main things people tend to inquire about are love and money. Underlying these inquiries is a belief that a tarot reading can tell the future, which begs the question of whether...
The results are based on responses from some 1,800 Black American adults, including more than 800 who attend a Black church. The California research firm conducted the survey in the spring of 2020.
Asian Americans are suffering under the weight of these mounting incidents. Many, including those in our own circles, have expressed concern about leaving their homes to perform everyday tasks.
"Black residents make up a little under half of Washington’s population, but constitute nearly three-fourths of the city's COVID-19 deaths."
Can interfaith leadership foster greater equity for the health of communities of color? Four leaders in healthcare discuss racial health disparities in our nation and how interfaith leadership can be implemented in order to solve them.
“It's an invitation to be subversive by focusing on ourselves."
Across the state, nearly every major health care system has partnered with Black and Hispanic houses of worship to expand vaccine access, setting up mobile clinics in their parking lots and fellowship halls.
Gandhi organized a nonviolent protest on behalf of the farmers. That was when the word satyagraha was used for the first time in the context of a political protest.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.