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A Hijab On The Track

Garfield High School running track.
photo by Joe Mabel

Sixteen-year-old Noor Abukaram expected a lot from herself as she joined her track teammates at their Ohio high school district invitational last month. She delivered, too: a personal best 5K time of 22 minutes, 22 seconds.

But it didn’t count, because Abukaram was wearing a hijab without getting permission first.

The hijab itself was not a problem. The head covering she wore out of respect for her Muslim faith was a sleek gray sports model, complete with a standard Nike swoosh. Abukaram had competed at six prior meets while wearing it without an issue. She’d also competed in soccer and track while wearing her hijab with no problem. It was not even her responsibility to seek the required religious-observance waiver of Ohio High School Athletic Association rules governing nonathletic headgear; that should have been handled by her coach, who later apologetically blamed himself for what transpired.

Unlike at her earlier events, officials at the district invitational were fastidious about enforcing the rules. One young athlete was required to change her shorts before the race. They apparently noticed Abukaram’s headgear infraction before the race as well; she later recalled seeing officials in conversation with her coach. At that point, there was no time to seek the waiver. According to local press accounts, the coach knew his student athlete would not remove her hijab, so he asked officials to let her run the race anyway, even though her time would not count.

Abukaram was delighted with her performance, until she checked the scoreboard and saw that her name was missing.

“Disqualifications happen all the time in cross country, so I thought it was something weird, like I had left a bracelet on,” she said later in a first-person account published by Vice. “I asked [teammates], ‘For what?’ and they look at me dead in the eye and one of them goes, ‘because of your hijab.’ At that moment my heart was breaking because I worked really, really hard this whole season. I came in late in the season and I had to prove to the coach that I would get up to speed. I decreased my time by four minutes in one season. After running my best race and crossing that finish line, seeing that I PR’d [set a personal record] and then finding out that it didn’t count officially was really heartbreaking. Then hearing it from my teammates, who I’m already very different from, telling me it’s because of your hijab, it was like my worst nightmare came true.”

Abukaram deliberated for a couple of days, then published her account on Facebook. It garnered thousands of likes and shares. At that point, the incident became a nightmare for Ohio scholastic athletic officials too, as the story leaped from social media to local, national and global news outlets.

This was a completely unnecessary train wreck. Nobody intended to discriminate against Abukaram and her religion. Had a waiver been sought, it would have been granted. But why have a rule banning religious head coverings in the first place if it merely creates an administrative hurdle that coaches must jump to avoid a debacle like the one at Abukaram’s district track meet?

The OHSAA seems to have realized this, if belatedly. Officials announced last week that the rule requiring waivers for hijabs and similar religious gear will be changed. The specifics of what will replace it were not immediately disclosed. Abukaram’s Facebook post generated an enormous global outpouring of support, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that she cast a spotlight on an issue that extends far beyond her own experience.

“Since then, I’ve been getting so many messages from different people around the world saying, ‘this happened to me five years ago’ or ‘this just happened to me,’” she told Vice. “They just never had the opportunity to speak up and say what happened.”

Despite the disqualification at the district level, Abukaram was allowed to compete in the regional track meet that followed. This time her coach sought, and was immediately granted, the required waiver permitting the young athlete to wear her hijab. She wore it as she ran her 5K and set a new personal best: 21 minutes, 51 seconds.

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