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Leading with Compassion - Imagine a World Where Hijabis Aren't Barred from Sports

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Posted on Oct 25, 2019
Dilshad Ali

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If you're Muslim, into sports or in any way connected to one of those two groups, you've probably already read about Noor Alexandria Abukaram, a 16-year-old cross country runner with Sylvania Northview High School in eastern Ohio, who was disqualified after running a personal best in a 5K for the hijab she wore.

She was told that her hijab violated uniform policy and that her personal best time wouldn't be taken into the record. Abukaram told Huffington Post's Rowaida AbdulAziz, "At first it was just so humiliating and then it was huge disbelief. This has never happened to me."

Noor Alexandria Abukaram, cross country runner

Cross country runner Noor Alexandria Abukaram, 16. Image source Huffington Post and Twitter.

Noor had competed in previous meets with no problems until last week's Division 1 Northwest District cross-country meet. So, why was her hijab not uniform-compliant? Because, race officials told the team that she had needed a waiver signed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association in order to race in her hijab:

... even though she had never been asked for one before in all her time on school cross-country, track and soccer teams. She was in her normal race gear ― black Nike leggings, an Under Armour top with the team’s jersey, and a Nike hijab to comply with her religious values — and didn’t expect any issues.

An OHSAA representative told HuffPost that cross-country runners are allowed to participate in competitions wearing religious headwear so long as the runners “obtained a waiver from the OHSAA and submitted it to the head office before the race since it is a change to the OHSAA uniform regulations.”

Saturday’s officials “[were] simply enforcing this rule since a waiver had not been submitted,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the organization is now “looking at this specific uniform regulation to potentially modify it in the future, so that religious headwear does not require a waiver.”

Muslim women and girls are no strangers to this game. As I say to my kids – this ain't our first rodeo.

From physical education uniforms in public (and private) schools to team sports uniforms to college and professional sports, women have been asking and fighting for uniform adjustments. I recall all my years in the public school system, when I did not wear hijab, when my mother would either send a letter or have a meeting with the gym teacher to seek permission for me to wear sweatpants instead of shorts.

More than 20 years later, I have done the same for my own daughter in school and in various soccer leagues she played in. Rowaida over at Huffington Post has a twitter thread going on right now in which she is asking women to weigh in on all the times they've had to submit a letter, email, waiver or any sort of request for permission to wear a hijab or any other clothing accommodation. It's maddening when you lay it out like that, because then you realize how it has permeated all aspects of our lives.

Sports activist and journalist Shireen Ahmed isn't having it. At all. 

 
One immediate question is this: Should athletes be made to sign waivers for clothing accommodations (due to religion or any other reason) before every competition or the start of a season? Should it have to be a battle every single time? (Because it has been a battle with many sports leagues from amateur through professional.) Consider Shireen's offer up above. What would it take for athletic associations and coaches to lead with a bit more sensitivity and compassion?

I know sports is competitive by nature. However can't compassion be part of this all? Noor is 16, the same age as my own daughter. What must've it felt like to finish a race, having run your personal best, only to be told you're disqualified because your hijab didn't meet standards? It makes me angry and sad. Because it's been a grind my entire life that continues into how I parent my kids now.

A friend of mine, an art teacher with whom I worked briefly at a school many years ago, reached out to me and sent me a video, telling me, This is the way it should be.

This was the viral video. It's from 2018, but it's apropos that this video hit my feed in multitudes this week, around the same time Noor's story broke. You've probably seen it yourself:

 

Imagine a world where, far from having to fight to compete, Muslim (and all) women are greeted with the same level of support shown in this video. Ask yourself  who do we we want to be? And, not just in regards to how we view or support Muslim women who wear the hijab (or don't wear the hijab). And, why is this STILL a thing? Can we approach each other with sensitivity and compassion and reasonableness? 

Who do you want to be?


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