Noor Alexandria Abukaram felt as if she had just been punched in the gut.
It was Saturday, Oct. 19, and the 16-year-old Sylvania Northview cross country runner had just finished her fastest 5K of the season (22 minutes, 22 seconds) at the Division I Northwest District meet. At first, she was elated. She had achieved a new plateau. Her team was headed to regionals. She and her teammates celebrated her win, collected their awards and walked over to the boards to see their final placings.
That’s when Abukaram noticed her name was missing. She turned to her teammates, confident it was a mistake, only to have them tell her it wasn’t.
Her hijab, the veil she chose to wear as a Muslim woman, violated the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s (OHSAA) rules.
Her coach, who had failed to submit a waiver clearing Abukaram’s headscarf on the basis of religious practice, had been told by officials she had been disqualified before the start of the race.
Her time—her personal best at that moment—didn’t count.
“It was like a nightmare came true,” Abukaram told Sports Illustrated. “My race is supposed to be under my control, but that control was taken away from me because of my hijab, something I hold so close to my heart. I felt so let down by the sport that I had trained so hard to run in. It was humiliating and embarrassing and upsetting.”
And it never should have happened.
According to the OHSAA’s cross country rule guidebook, the association bans the use of most head coverings like hats and caps, but does not address hijabs specifically. It also states that “a competitor who competes with an illegal uniform shall be disqualified, following a proper warning allowing the competitor the opportunity to correct the error.”
That opportunity was never given to Abukaram, who had always feared that an official might give her trouble for her hijab during a uniform inspection. One of her teammates was in fact told to change her shorts, but Abukaram said the official passed her by without a word. No one mentioned any concerns—not even her coach, Jerry Flowers, who knew her race wouldn’t be counted.
“Cross country runners may participate in competitions with religious headwear, provided the runner has obtained a waiver from the OHSAA and submitted to the head official before the race, since it is a change to the OHSAA uniform regulations,” the OHSAA told the Toledo Blade in a statement last week. “The official was simply enforcing this rule since a waiver had not been submitted.”
Flowers shouldered the blame for not having that waiver, telling the Blade that it was “my mistake for not having it. It’s 100% on me.”
But that isn’t entirely true. Abukaram has played three high school sports since she began wearing a hijab in 2016, and it wasn’t until that Oct. 19 race, her seventh one of the season, that she learned she wasn’t allowed to run in her hijab without special permission. And even if Abukaram had been warned, there’s still a larger question at hand worth seriously considering.
Why was a waiver even necessary in the first place?
Muslim women, both veiled and unveiled, have been competing at the highest levels of international sports for a very long time, and for decades, those who wear hijab have been forced to choose between honoring their faith and not playing their respective sport, or removing it in order to compete.
Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani champion weightlifter, was banned by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) from wearing the long-sleeve shirts, pants and hijab she donned in lieu of a singlet until the rule was amended in 2011. FIFA launched a trial following widespread backlash on its ban of head coverings for soccer players in 2012, rescinding the restriction two years later. Basketball’s governing body, FIBA, long insisted that “players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players,” including hijab, before the long-criticized ban was overturned in 2017. And just last year, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association voted to drop its waiver requirement after a high school basketball player in Philadelphia was forced to leave a game because she was wearing a hijab.
Yet here we are in 2019, despite earlier signs of progress, still fighting the same battles. Even after the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab in Olympic competition en route to a bronze medal—even after Nike released a hijab specifically marketed for Muslim woman in sport, a hijab the Raptors decided to become the first team to brand in an effort to be more inclusive—we’re still singling out veiled Muslim women for participating in the sports they love. Still telling them that their identities as a Muslim and an athlete cannot co-exist without permission.
Still insisting to them that a basic right requires a waiver.
"It’s so demeaning as an athlete,” Abukaram said. "They don’t have to prepare anything special for me. I'm running just like everyone else. Why should you have to sacrifice your religion and a part of who you are to run, to do another thing that you're very passionate about?"
You shouldn’t, and Abukaram strove to prove that during Saturday’s regionals, running a personal best 21:47. This time, it counted.
“[Regionals] was surreal,” Abukaram said. “It was such a huge motivator, a way for me to prove that I’m just going to continue to be better and be the athlete I know I can be, regardless of what’s in my way.”
The OHSAA may soon come to realize Abukaram’s message, too, already looking at ways to update its regulations following the feedback it has received in light of Abukaram’s disqualification. Officials still received a waiver for Abukaram to race at regionals, but by next season, Abukaram hopes the rule is no longer in place.
OHSAA executive director Jerry Snodgrass tweeted a statement Friday addressing the situation. “Having a rule in place for those who wear religious articles is wrong, and we are taking immediate steps to have our Board of Directors modify this outdated regulation so that this does not happen again.”
Until then, she’ll continue to fight those battles. To push for further progress. To show the millions of Muslim women like her that nothing can stop them from pursuing what they love. Not their race. Not their gender.
And definitely not their hijab.
“I never want another student-athlete to endure the same fate that I did,” Abukaram said. “I want them to know that they don’t need to change themselves to make someone else feel more comfortable, that they don’t have to sacrifice a part of themselves to take part in the sport they love. The hijab is a part of our identity. This is who we are. Nobody can change that.”