“My heart dropped. I felt like something horrible happened to me…something that I always thought could happen but never has happened. I think I was mostly embarrassed…because like…I never expected it to happen." That word — “embarrassed” — struck a cord a little too deeply as I listened to Noor Alexandria Abukaram’s CBS interview last week, after she was disqualified from her high school track meet for wearing hijab.
My own heart sank as I remembered a few of the many embarrassing moments I’ve had as a hijabi athlete:
the time my bandana fell off during my first half-marathon and I had to wear a hoodie for the rest of my race;
the time I was sweating through my beanie during a yoga class, and the male instructor thought he was helping me by coming over during a backbend and pulling it off.
But Noor’s experience is different: it’s revealing the next part of the problem. It’s not an access issue — Noor is in the next generation: the generation that is wearing a sports hijab that is enabling her to participate fully. Her attire poses no threat to her performance, her safety, or that of any of her teammates. And yet, she was embarrassingly completely overlooked by the athletic authority in her district.
In the week since Noor has been disqualified, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around her experience.
Like Noor, I also grew up in a small town in Ohio. I played on my high school tennis team. I didn’t wear hijab at the time, but I remember asking my coaches if I could get a short sleeved shirt instead of our sleeveless tennis top; they said no, and the conversation was finished. In order to compete, I had to wear a sleeveless top. That was that.
Fast forward to 2019, and 16-year-old Noor has broken the internet because she is competing in a hijab.
Her disqualification has been broadly covered by major outlets like NYT and CNN. Celebrity Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad wrote, “Sports should be a place where everyone has the right to play," and political frontrunner Elizabeth Warren advocates that “Muslim students should never be denied participation in school activities.”
The world is buzzing, defending a woman’s right to once again...choose.
The concept of a sports hijab is no longer foreign or radical; in fact, I would argue that it is on the verge of becoming mainstream.
What happened to Noor was wrong. It is fully and completely unfair. It is a reason to be upset at the state of the world. It reveals, yet again, that the actions Americans often take towards (or against) its minority groups are not driven by pure ignorance but rather by an active willingness to discriminate.
Noor's disqualification was unwarranted and unjust, but oddly enough, it was a huge win for Muslim women in the conversation against the underlying discrimination in this country.
Her disqualification is forcing America to have a conversation with itself about the complexity of the Muslim identity, and how that Muslim identity can belong anywhere it wants to — even on the field. Especially on the field.
Within a week of Noor speaking out, the same athletic authority that disqualified her has already revoked their previous policy that required her to have a waiver to compete.
Noor’s run — her personal best that wasn’t counted — has ensured that no Muslim woman — that NO WOMAN — will ever be disqualified for religious attire in her district again.
Thank you Noor, for being brave enough to have the conversation I wasn’t brave enough to have at 16. For having the courage to pave the way for the next part of the Muslim narrative in America — the one that includes Muslim women in mainstream athletics far before the Olympics. And thank you Noor, for bringing this country up to speed on the reality of being so free that you can both wear a hijab AND be an outstanding athlete.