In Nashville, Tennessee this week, 14-year-old ninth grader Najah Aqeel was readying to play a volleyball match (the second game of the season) for her charter school, Valor Collegiate Academics, against Brentwood Academy, a private Christian school. But before the game could start, the referee pulled out a book, cited a rule and effectively banned Najah from playing.
Why? Because she was wearing a hijab.
We spoke to Najah and her mom, Aliya Aqeel, about what went down. “Out of the blue the ref pulled out a [rule] book, which stated that in order for her to play, she has to have a written letter giving her permission to wear a hijab to play,” says Aliya. “None of our coaches on our team had ever heard of this rule.
“Now mind you that when my daughter plays volleyball, she wears her headscarf in a bun style. But they said no, she can’t play without this letter, so she sat on the bench the entire game.” Aliya and her husband Ali were livid. “I don’t know how it all came about,” says Aliya. “I don’t know if the ref was irritated at her or if the opposing team said something about her in the scarf. … [but] I am the type of mom who is on the phone calling contacts. Like, this is not happening to my baby. Is it legal? Is it right?”
It’s hard to believe that this is still happening in schools, businesses and other places across the country. Just last fall in 2019, high school cross country athlete Noor Alexandria Abukaram was disqualified by the Ohio High School Athletic Association as she was running a 5K and beating her personal record. Why? Because her coach had failed to apply for a waiver for her to run with her hijab, which Noor told the New York Times
didn’t make any sense because “I don’t have disabilities. I am running just like anybody else.”
Injustice exists in numerous forms all around us, from the most personal of injustices that denies a young Muslim female athlete from engaging her sport simply because of her hijab and/or clothing she wears, to widespread social injustices that plague Muslims (and humans in general) in the United States and around the world – Black Lives Matter, the Muslim (travel) Ban, targeting of immigrants and refugees, violence against women, discrimination against the disabled, the school-to-prison pipeline and on and on and on.
Allah (S) tells us in the Holy Quran, “Oh you who believe, stand firmly for justice as witnesses to God. Even if it be against yourselves, your parents or your family.” (4:135)
And while it would be disingenuous to think that we haven’t had our backs up against the wall before, this particular moment we are in feels especially acute, like everything we hold dear and that is important for living in a more equitable life are being stripped away, one by one. As Muslims, we are charged with enjoying the good and forbidding evil – to raise our voices in protest against injustice and to stand up for those who need our support.
We will not be subjugated.
We will not be discriminated against.
We will not be silenced.
We will not be banned.
And more importantly, we will not allow it to happen to others either.
With about two months left until the presidential general elections, with so much on the line, we have to ask ourselves – how hard are we willing to fight for our rights as Americans, as Muslims, as humans who deserve lives free of persecution, violence, bans, discrimination, injustice and hatred? Are we willing (if we are privileged) to set aside our privilege and stand up for those most marginalized and persecuted, those who are put down and beat down?
14-year-old vollyball player Najah Aqeel; image source: The Aqeel family.
The right to play a sport while wearing one’s hijab is a huge problem. Make no mistake, seeking one’s right to freely practice one’s faith while pursuing one’s passions is part of this country’s foundational guarantees.
I’m reminded of a hadith that I’m pretty sure we all know fairly well: On the authority of Abu Sa’eed al Khurdee in Sahih Muslim
, who said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah (saw) say, ‘Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’”
In Nashville, Aliya, Ali and their daughter Najah are not willing to let injustice go unturned. When she was told she couldn’t play in the volleyball game because of her hijab, Najah started to cry. “And then after I cried, I went to my mom, and she told me it’s okay. I had a lot of support from my teammates. I felt hurt but supported.”
The thing is, says Najah, her hijab wasn’t a safety concern at all, as she was wearing it in a bun around her hair. “ It wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone. We’re not even close to each other on court to hurt anyone.” She had her family are now on a mission, with the help of the American Muslim Advisory Council, to get the rule changed, not only in Najah’s school district but across the state.
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir knows plenty about this injustice. The basketball player and cofounder of Dribble Down Barriers was banned from her dream
of playing in the WNBA and internationally because of her hijab nearly a decade ago. “I’m livid,” she told Haute Hijab in an interview. “How can this still be happening? I will not stand for it.”
Bilqis is calling on everyone to stand up in support of Najah in her fight for her right to play in her hijab without any waiver letters. You can help by sending the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association an email (find all the emails for the TSSAA state office staff here
, tweet at them (@tssaa_champions) or tag them in a post (you can also reshare Bilqis’ IG post
) with the hashtag #RemoveHijabRule. Let’s all do our part and raise our voices.