The high schooler was told moments before the game was scheduled to start that she required special permission to play while wearing a hijab.
Cover image used for representational purposes only
A ninth-grader from Nashville, Tennessee was disqualified from playing at her school's volleyball game after her hijab was deemed to be in violation of the rules by a referee. Najah Aqeel, a student at Valor Collegiate Academies—a network of free, public college-preparatory charter schools in the city—was set to play at an away game for the freshman volleyball team last week. However, right before the game was scheduled to start, the referee informed Aqeel and her assistant coach that the teen's hijab violated the rules set by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
According to HuffPost, the high schooler was told that she required special permission to play while wearing a hijab in accordance with the guidelines set by the NFHS, which is the national body that writes the rules for numerous sports for most high schools across the country. However, Aqeel and her coaches were unaware of such a rule as she had previously played games wearing the hijab without any issues. Upset by the lack of communication and the arbitrary enforcement of the rule, the teen athlete began to cry moments before she was scheduled to play.
"I was crying, not because I was hurt. I was crying because I was angry. I just thought it was unfair," Aqeel explained. Her mother, Aliya Aqeel—who was present at the court to watch her daughter play—was devastated by her daughter's distress and tried to get answers. "My baby's crying. She was upset and I am that mom that's like, 'No. You can't make her cry,'" said Aliya. "This was an injustice. It was because of her religion. It was because of her hijab." This is not the first time a Muslim student-athlete has been disqualified from a high school competition for wearing a hijab.
This arbitrary and archaic rule that @NFHS_Org has in place, that basically says, Muslim girls need approval to BE MUSLIM on the courts and fields, needs to be dropped! We don’t need a paper to make everyone else feel comfortable with what we believe in and choose to wear.— Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir (@Bilqis_AbdulQ) September 18, 2020
The rule clearly targets Muslim women and girls, PERIOD.— Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir (@Bilqis_AbdulQ) September 18, 2020
In 2018, a teen named Noor Alexandria Abukaram was disqualified from her race in Ohio after achieving her personal best time when officials claimed that her hijab violated the uniform and that she needed to have a waiver for the same. Muslim athletes in professional leagues have also faced similar challenges in their careers, with many revealing that they felt forced to choose between their faith and their love for sports. With recent years shining the spotlight on this form of religious discrimination, advocates have called on both athletic departments and international leagues to end the practice and update what they call "antiqued rules" that target Muslim women.
A spokesperson for Valor Collegiate Academies said in a statement that it had no idea the policy existed until the recent incident involving Aqeel and that none of its other hijab-wearing athletes had ever had an issue. "As an athletic department, we are extremely disappointed that we were not aware of this rule or previously informed of this rule in our 3 years as a TSSAA [Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association] member school," said Cameron Hill, director of Athletics at Valor Collegiate Academies. "We are also frustrated that this rule has been selectively enforced as evidenced by the fact that student-athletes have previously competed while wearing hijabs."
While the school has since acquired a waiver for Najah and future players, Hill called the headwear rule "discriminatory" and "inequitable." Meanwhile, TSSAA—the state-level member of NFHS—said that it was just following the rules set by the national organization. "TSSAA has always granted exceptions to any student that wishes to participate with headwear, or other articles of clothing, due to religious reasons," said the executive director of the organization, Bernard Childress. "The request in this situation was submitted to our office on Wednesday, September 16, and was approved immediately." Unfortunately for Aqeel, the approval came a day late and she had to sit out the game on Tuesday.
As a mother of athletic daughters, I’m outraged at the systemic racism, sexism, and discriminatory rules by the National Federation of High Schools.— Kasar Abdulla (@kasar1992) September 18, 2020
Inspired by Najah Aqeel’s courage for standing up. #NajahAqeelIStandWithYou#Wildcates4EquityNow https://t.co/XneSUiaCHl
Justifying the headwear rule, Karissa Niehoff—executive director of the NFHS—said that the federation established its rules with the goal of minimizing risk. "The NFHS strongly supports the Constitutional rights that our young people have to exercise freedom of religion and has no intent to interfere with those rights," she said. "We will take a hard look at the language in our rules publications and continue to work with our state associations as they develop policies related to NFHS playing rules in their states."