Muslim athlete wants new law so competitors can wear hijab in sports
The Columbus Dispatch
February 22, 2022
Noor Alexandria Abukaram identifies as being both an athlete and a Muslim – two elements that clashed in a disappointing and humiliating manner at an Ohio high school cross country meet in 2019.
Abukaram, then 16, had just run the best 5K of her life, finishing the course in 22 minutes and 22 seconds. But an official at the meet disqualified Abukaram. Why? Because she wore a hijab while running.
A hijab is a traditional covering of the hair and neck worn by Muslim women. It symbolizes modesty and religion.
At the time of her 2019 race, Ohio High School Athletic Association rules required student athletes wearing religious headgear to get permission prior to the event. But Abukaram’s coach didn’t get permission and it hadn’t been an issue all season until the regional qualifier meet.
“If I feel like as an athlete, I’m a person that competes,” Abukaram said. “And that’s just a part of who I am. So, when that tries to be taken away from me, especially for something like my hijab, which is something that I love and hold so dear to my heart. It feels really humiliating.”
In 2020 OHSAA changed the rule to permit athletes to compete while wearing a religious head covering unless the official deems it will fundamentally alter the sport or is dangerous for the participant, such as dangling jewelry. The Ohio association worked with its national counterpart to rework the rule.
Abukaram said over the last few years the rule book has been changed numerous times. She knew a rule change would not be enough, and if she did not share her story, other girls would fall victim to the same discrimination she had experienced.
“OHSAA clearly displayed how much this bill was needed,” Abukaram said. “The law that prohibits organizations from implementing discriminatory policies is so important because rule books are subject to change and law needs to protect athletes from that.”
After confiding in her big sister, they both agreed their little sister would one day want to play sports just as they did, and speaking out would hopefully mean no other girls would have to experience what Abukaram did.
“Let’s just like make the path easier for her,” she said. “Let’s open some doors so that she can walk through a little bit easier than me or my older sister had.”
Abukaram took the pain and ran with it. She started her own movement, hoping to bring support to others who had experienced what she has, and to advocate for religious freedoms in sports.
Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, reached out to Abukaram and her family when she heard her story on the news. They met in a coffee shop for what they both described as an electric meeting which was the catalyst for real change in Ohio.
Senate Bill 181, sponsored by Gavarone, passed both the Senate and the House unanimously.
Abukaram thinks of this bill as her baby. She has been there every step of the way, from the drop off at the clerk’s office to both Senate and House votes on the bill.
According to Governor DeWine’s office, he is expected to sign the bill into law.
“This piece of legislation really brought the Christian, the Jewish, the Muslim community all together in support of this,” Gavarone said. “It was really just a beautiful thing.”
Abukaram is a now a first year student at Ohio State University. She is determined to continue her work advocating for religious freedoms and fighting discrimination.
Mary Jane Sanese is a fellow in Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau program.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Mike DeWine to sign law, Ohio HS athletes can compete wearing hijabs