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In September, when a referee told 14-year-old Najah Aqeel that she couldn’t compete in a junior varsity volleyball game because she was wearing a hijab, she was crushed.

“I was crying. I was sad and upset and angry,” recalled Najah, a high school freshman at Valor College Prep in Nashville.

The referee cited a rule — established by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the body that governs most high school sports across the country — noting that student athletes wearing “hair devices” more than three inches wide needed to secure prior approval from their state athletic association to compete. For athletes such as Najah, the rule meant they had to secure permission to compete while wearing their hijabs, the head coverings worn in public by some Muslim girls and women.

Najah’s sadness that day didn’t last long, she said. She soon got to work, with the support of her school and a local organization, to change the rule with the hope that no hijabi athlete in Tennessee — or beyond — would face the same fate.

“I have friends that play basketball who are hijabis, and they knew nothing about the [rule],” she said. “I wanted to make sure that no other person has to go through this, because it did not feel good.”

Thanks to Najah’s activism, volleyball players across the country will be able to wear religious headwear while competing without getting prior approval, the NFHS announced earlier this month. And in Tennessee, athletes can now compete in any sport while wearing hijabs, Sikh turbans and Jewish kippahs without getting permission ahead of time, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association announced in December.

For Najah, the changes help convey to other hijabi athletes that they, too, belong in sports — not on the sidelines.

“I feel like it makes hijabis that are playing sports feel like they can play sports,” she said. “Sometimes they steer away from sports, because they don’t know if they can wear their hijab, or they don’t know if they can wear sleeves and long pants.”

The Tennessee freshman is the latest example of a wave of hijabi high school athletes across the country who have been forced out of competition for wearing their religious headwear — and who have used their experiences to help advocate for wider change.

A matter of ‘selective enforcement’

Both the existence of the rule regulating religious headwear and its enforcement came as a surprise to Najah, who said she had competed while wearing her hijab before without any issues.

Other hijabi athletes at Valor Prep had also competed with their head coverings without any issues in prior years, according to the school’s athletic director, Cameron Hill. After the referee told Najah she couldn’t play, Hill called the state association to secure a letter of approval. But by the time the letter came through, the game was over, Hill said, adding that he characterized the incident as a matter of “selective enforcement.”

Najah’s mother, Aliya, also felt as if the enforcement of the rule was random.

“This has been going on for so long — Muslim girls wearing hijabs in sports — so I don’t really know what made them decide to single her out this time,” she said.

Representatives for the Middle Tennessee Volleyball Association, the organization that employed the referee, did not respond to a request for comment.

A representative for the state association said the referee was not at fault, and that the rule was not intended to target religious headwear, but to instead prevent athletes from wearing items such as scarves and bandannas.

“There was not any wrongdoing in the instance,” said Matthew Gillespie, the assistant executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. “The referee in question applied the rule correctly as it was written.”

Najah stayed at the game to cheer her teammates on that day. But she said the incident did have an effect on the team as a whole.

“We lost that game, because our heads weren’t really in it,” Najah said.

The path to change

Soon after the game, Hill and other officials at Valor Prep sent a proposal for the rule change to the state association. In the meantime, Najah and her mother worked with the American Muslim Advisory Council, an organization that works to empower Muslims across Tennessee, to help raise awareness about the issue.

The organization’s executive director, Sabina Mohyuddin, said her own childhood experiences growing up as a hijabi in Tennessee inspired her to advocate for Najah’s cause. In the 1980s, she was one of the first people to wear a hijab in Nashville schools, she said, adding that her own hesitancy about how she could participate in sports as a hijabi held her back as a kid.

“I thought about joining basketball, but with those barriers of the kind of uniforms girls wear, and then me wearing a hijab. … I didn’t really think much to pursue it,” Mohyuddin said.

In October, Mohyuddin’s organization partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee to draft and send a letter to the state association outlining why the rule needed to change, pointing to Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad as an example of a Muslim athlete whose hijab did not interfere with her athletic performance.

In December, the state association responded to Valor’s proposal and issued the rule change for all athletes across Tennessee. And in January, the national federation’s volleyball rules committee voted to adopt the rule change for volleyball players across the country.

Najah’s mother, Aliya, broke the news of the rule change to her daughter. For Najah, it came as a source of long-overdue comfort that ensured neither she nor any other volleyball-playing hijabis would have to sit out their sport again because of their headscarves.

“I felt relieved and humbled and happy,” she said.

The national federation’s rules are not binding, according to executive director Karissa Niehoff. But when it comes to volleyball, almost every state adopts the federation’s rules without accommodation, she said.

The federation’s 15 other rules committees, which govern other high school sports across the country, will each consider applying the rule change pertaining to religious headwear to their sports in the coming months — meaning Najah’s example could create change for all athletes across the country, a prospect that Niehoff considers more than likely.

‘The world is going to have to change’

In recent years, other high school athletes across the country have fought to wear hijabs while playing their sports.

In 2019, 16-year-old Noor Alexandra Abukaram was disqualified from an Ohio cross-country race after having run her best time of the season because she did not secure a waiver to compete with her hijab and the long sleeves and leggings she wore for modesty, officials told her.

In the aftermath, she just wanted to get her waiver and run her next race, she said. (The Ohio state association issued her waiver soon after the incident, so she was able to run in regionals that weekend.) But she soon realized she wanted to use her experience to help other hijabi runners, she said.

“I talked to my mom and realized that it’s not about me, at the end of the day. It’s about the future athletes that are going to come after me and [Najah],” Noor said.

Last year, Noor set up her own initiative — Let Noor Run — to raise awareness about discrimination in sports. The group will soon host a virtual 5K, which will also raise money to provide sports hijabs to athletes who need them.

Noor also worked with Ohio state senator Theresa Gavarone (R) to draft legislation protecting freedom of expression for athletes. It was unanimously passed in the state Senate in June, and Noor hopes it will soon pass in the House.

“It should be a norm that hijabis can be the face of a cross-country race or volleyball, just as any other girl can,” she said.

Amaiya Zafar agrees. As a 16-year-old boxer, Amaiya was disqualified from the 2016 Sugar Bert Boxing National Championships as a result of wearing her hijab, along with a shirt and leggings for modesty.

The following year, USA Boxing finally decided to lift its ban on the apparel — and Amaiya became the first hijabi athlete to box in an event sanctioned by the national organization.

Then, in 2019, the International Boxing Association amended its rules to allow boxers around the world to wear hijabs and full-body uniforms while competing.

“My coach used to always tell me, ‘It takes one,’ and I thought it was so corny,” Amaiya said. “And then I started to see that it really just does take one. It takes one person to be like, ‘This is who I am, and I’m not changing.’ If I can’t exist in this world, the world is going to have to change.”

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