Noor Alexandria Abukaram had just finished her greatest race to date at a 5K run at her local district meet on Saturday. It was her personal best time: 22 minutes and 22 seconds.
But when the 16-year-old got to the finish line, she noticed her name and time were not listed. When Abukaram asked why, officials said her hijab violated the uniform policy and that she had been disqualified. Her personal best time didn’t even count.
The Sylvania Northview High School cross-country runner had competed in previous meets with no problems until Saturday’s Division 1 Northwest District cross-country meet in eastern Ohio.
“At first it was just so humiliating and then was huge disbelief,” Abukaram told HuffPost. “This has never happened to me.”
Race officials told the teen that she needed to have a waiver signed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association in order to race ― 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.”
The disqualification was emblematic of what many women who wear hijabs go through while participating in sports. While each sport has its own rules with regards to religious headwear, Muslim women who compete while wearing a hijab have faced a litany of obstacles. In 2017, the International Basketball Federation overturned its long-criticized ban on religious headwear, including the hijab, after much scrutiny. Following the suit, the International Boxing Association announced earlier this year that Muslim women would also be allowed to compete in a hijab.
“Anybody who wears hijab — or anyone who has to wear something for their religion — shouldn’t have to get a waiver to race or not race at all,” Abukaram said.
Abukaram said she and her teammates go through a uniform check prior to each race. During Saturday’s race, officials told one of Abukaram’s teammates that her shorts had violated rules, and the girl quickly changed into new ones that were accepted, Abukaram said. But no one mentioned any concerns to Abukaram about her attire ― not even her coach, who knew her race would not be counted ― until after she completed her race.
An OHSAA cross-country rulebook states that head coverings, such as hats and caps, were banned, but it does not address hijabs specifically. The rulebook also states that athletes who require an exception to the uniform rules due to religious reasons had to request one from OHSAA.
“Why wouldn’t they tell me about my uniform violation just like they told the girl on my team? Why wouldn’t they give me that same respect that they gave her?” Abukaram said. “I felt disrespected. I felt humiliated.”
The situation “was really badly handled from start to finish,” said Shireen Ahmed, an expert and sportswriter who has extensively covered Muslim women in sports.
“This is a problem of education and with people not knowing what to do,” she added. “A lot of the way that athlete cases are handled is because coaches and teachers don’t know any better, and neither do officials.”
Ahmed said it was imperative for OHSAA to clarify why such an arbitrary policy that isn’t written or explicit in any way is even needed during a sport like cross-country, a no-contact sport with few safety risks.
A junior in high school, Abukaram has been running for years. Both of her parents are runners who were thrilled when their daughter picked up the sport. She is set to race this weekend again for regionals, and this time she has a waiver ready. But she wants changes to be made to the outdated rule that excluded her from the sport she loves.
“My hijab is a part of me. For them to tell me to race without my hijab, it’s them telling me not to race at all,” Abukaram said. “And I’m sure that applies for a lot of other people that feel strongly about their religion.”