Noor Alexandria Abukaram, a high school student from Ohio, was told she was disqualified from a cross country race on account of her wearing a hijab. The Islamic head covering apparently violated the strict uniform rules set forth by the Ohio High School Athletic Association. Because her coach hadn’t applied for a waiver, an official said her time wouldn’t be counted.
The whole incident, technicalities and all, has led the OHSAA to reconsider how they handle this issue in the future.
“I was totally humiliated,” she said. “I felt like a clown. I am running this race and I have been disqualified and everyone knows it except for me.”
“When [the coach] told me [he had not applied for a waiver], I was like, ‘What do you mean I have to have a signed waiver for me to race?’” she said. “They don’t have to prepare anything special for me, I don’t have any disabilities, I am just running just like anybody else. When he said that, I didn’t think, ‘Oh, Coach, why didn’t you do this?’ I thought, ‘Why do we even have to do this in the first place?’”
Since that race, she has applied for and received the waiver, just in time for the postseason races. The issue, then, isn’t that the OHSAA is discriminating against students because of their religion, but requiring certain students to jump over an unnecessary hurdle. A spokesman for the OSHAA said they were “looking at this specific uniform regulation to potentially modify it in the future, so that religious headwear does not require a waiver.”
It would be the right move. A waiver like this is necessary when an accommodation might provide some unfair advantage to a runner. There’s no reason to think Abukaram’s head cover would do that. It’s not like anyone has accused her of wearing it in order to be faster or that it gives her a leg up over the competition. (She even mentioned that a U.S. Olympian had been allowed to wear a hijab without a problem.)
Whatever your beliefs about what a hijab symbolizes, a student who chooses to wear it shouldn’t be punished for that decision. This was never about athletics. This was about a rule that failed to take into account how religious beliefs might force someone to deviate from the requirements, even slightly. It ought to be fixed.