The mood after the race was jubilant. Sixteen-year-old Noor Alexandra Abukaram, who had just run her best time yet, hugged her high school teammates as they realized they were headed to regionals.
Then the students went to check their individual times at last Saturday’s Ohio cross-country meet, Abukaram remembers. It seemed there was a mistake — her 22:22 was not listed.
Other team members who’d sat out Abukaram’s race told her what they’d heard: An official at the Ohio High School Athletic Association approached their coach just before the race to say Abukaram needed a waiver to wear her hijab. Without it, she couldn’t compete.
“I was disqualified from something that I love to do because of something that I love,” Abukaram told The Washington Post on Friday. “Because of something that’s a part of me.”
Abukaram’s story, shared earlier this week in a Facebook post, has put a spotlight on athletic dress codes that critics say discriminate against Muslims. Abukaram says she’s been overwhelmed with messages sharing support and similar experiences; by Thursday, the issue had even caught the eye of presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who tweeted to Abukaram, “I’ve got your back.”
“Every kid should be able to feel safe and welcome at school — and Muslim students should never be denied participation in school activities,” Warren wrote.
Abukaram says her hijab has never posed an issue at meets before. Saturday’s event was her seventh this season, and she’s competed in soccer and track without problems, too.
She and her headscarf, she says, “go hand in hand.” She races in long sleeves, leggings and the Nike sports hijab donned by pros and Olympians.
The idea that her choices as a Muslim could interfere with her athletic pursuits was not new, though. Abukaram says she’s watched her older sister come home crying from soccer games, after being told to change out of religious garb like the long pants she wears in addition to a headscarf.
Many female Muslim athletes face scrutiny for their decision to cover their hair. In France, a brand’s rollout of a “runner’s hijab” stirred a backlash, with the country’s health minister remarking that she “would have preferred a French brand not to promote the veil.” Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics with a hijab, has described sticking out uncomfortably at competitions and being asked to remove her headscarf for an event ID photo.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association says it wasn’t singling out Abukaram last weekend, just enforcing its rules. Students need a waiver to run cross-country in “religious headwear,” spokesman Tim Stried told The New York Times, and Abukaram’s school had not requested one.
Abukaram’s request after Saturday’s race was approved “immediately,” Stried said. That means Abukaram can run this weekend in regionals.
For Abukaram, the decision to strike her time was still hurtful. She wants the waiver requirement dropped — something OHSAA is now considering, Stried told the Times.
Abukaram’s coach wants the policy changed, too.
“My hope is that this incident highlights how detrimental this rule can be and spurs positive change for our sport,” Jerry Flowers told The Post in an email.
Flowers said he only learned “at the starting line” Saturday that Abukaram would need a waiver. He opted against asking his athlete to remove her hijab or swapping her out for another runner — and decided not to break the bad news right before she competed.
“She had earned the right to race with the varsity, so I felt the best thing to do was to let her run unhindered,” Flower said.
Abukaram says word came afterward like a “punch in the gut.” She respected her coach’s resolve not to shake her concentration, but she wished meet officials had told her earlier.
Her family was equally indignant: “She earned her time on that race,” said her mother Yolanda Melendez.
Her parents plan to talk with OHSAA about changing the group’s rules. Abukaram is more focused on this weekend’s regional competition, though.
If things go well, she might wear her hijab at the state race.