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Movements That Matter – Volleyball Player Najah Aqeel Says You Can't Ban Us
Current Events
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Nov 9, 2020
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6 MIN READ
Dilshad Ali
editor
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Najah Aqeel; image source: The Tennessean
Dilshad Ali
editor
It took about three months from the time 14-year-old Najah Aqeel was banned from playing in her school’s volleyball game in Antioch, Tennessee – the second of the season – due to her hijab, but Najah and her family now have a victory to show for their hard fight:
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, a voluntary nonprofit organization that belongs to member schools in Tennessee and serves and monitors their school sports, voted to change the bylaw language at a regional meeting around wearing religious headwear in games. While the bylaw language change still needs to move up the ladder for full approval, it’s a step in the right direction.
The proposed language change reads as such: “Religious headwear is permitted, provided it is not abrasive, hard, or dangerous to the participant or any other player, and must be attached in such a way it is highly unlikely to come off during play. Religious headwear does not need to comply with any of the color restrictions defined in applicable sport uniform codes.
“Hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes are acceptable types of religious headwear.”
Hijab bans are still happening in school and collegiate sports, in businesses and other places across the country. Barely a year ago 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. Every time a Muslim female athlete like Najah is out there playing volleyball, or running, playing basketball, kicking a soccer ball, weight lifting, fencing, boxing, ice skating, doing martial arts or whatever the sport is, the message is clear: You can’t ban us.
With the launch of Haute Hijab Sport, we are proud to join these fierce women, like Najah and our HH Sport Ambassador Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, in their fight against hijab bans with our “Can’t Ban Us” campaign that aims to elevate these stories (share your story with us here) and work with athletes and athletic associations and organizations to educate about hijab and how it should never be a deterrent to participating in individual or team sports. This is a movement that matters to many Muslim women around the world, one that goes beyond our own faith to be a movement of inclusivity of religious-based clothing across the board.
For Najah, she never thought her hijab would become something she would have to fight this hard for.
Soon after she was stopped from playing in her second game of the season in mid-September, we spoke with Najah and her mother, Alia Aqeel, about what happened: “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?”
By the third game, Najah had her waiver letter and was back playing, but the injustice of it all sat with the family. Najah is the middle child among five siblings. Her younger brother plays football and basketball while her older brother also plays football. She started playing volleyball in sixth grade. “I mainly wanted to play because my sixth grade coach is a family friend, and she had been asking me for years. My dad had said no for a long time because of the clothes. But my coach said I could modify my uniform with leggings and long-sleeved shirts.”
Najah played in sixth and seventh grade, skipping playing in eight grade due to moving to another school that had no sports. By ninth grade she had joined Valor College Prep, a charter school. Though her team ended up losing every game in their three month season, “every game we lost made us stronger, and we improved every time,” she says. “I’m playing now in a club volleyball league, like a six-month club league.”
The bylaws followed by the TSSAA were crafted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), with whom Najah and her parents met to talk about getting the rule changed. Najah is happy the rules are changing, but still upset that no one ever apologized for what happened. “I most definitely think they should’ve taken responsibility. If they had been real with everything, it would’ve been better. Their story with how they handled things doesn’t add up.”
We are excited to be working with Najah, Bilqis, Noor and other athletes both amateur and professional who have faced hijab bans in their sport or in other areas of life as we push forward with this campaign.
This won’t be the last time a hijab-wearing female athlete will be discriminated against. “I just want [girls] to know that it’s changing, and I want them to know that if it does happen, they’re not alone,” says Najah. I don’t want them to feel as though I’m the only person, that, I’m being targeted. No it’s not – it’s happened to so many other girls.”
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