Najah Aqeel, a 14-year-old freshman at Valor Collegiate Prep in Nashville, Tennessee, was warming up for her high school volleyball game last week when her coach approached her. The coach informed Najah that the referee had chosen to prohibit her from participating in the match because she was wearing a hijab. The referee said Najah had broken a rule stating that a player must get prior authorization to wear the traditional Muslim garment.
Najah began to sob. She went to the bleachers where her mother, Aliya Aqeel, waited for her.
“She was crying hysterically,” Aliya told TODAY. “She was just so upset. She didn’t understand why she was being targeted.”
Najah stayed and cheered for her team, but she was angry. “It didn’t make any sense,” the teenager told TODAY. “I didn’t understand why I needed permission to wear something for religious reasons.”
Interestingly, prior to the day when Najah was barred from participating in the match, Muslim athletes including Najah had been wearing hijabs during games and no one had ever said a word about it. That’s according to Cameron Hill, the athletic director at Valor Collegiate Academies. Hill told TODAY that he didn’t even know there was a rule about getting permission to wear a hijab.
“The way she approached the situation showed a level of maturity beyond her years,” Hill said of Najah. Hill told TODAY that Valor Collegiate Prep would be petitioning the National Federation of State High School Associations, which is the organization that writes rules for many high school sports, to change the “antiquated” and “oppressive” policy requiring teens to get approval to wear a hijab.
But Karissa Niehoff, executive director of NFHS, told TODAY that the rule is in place for good reason. “Our rules were developed to prevent kids from wearing things that might be grabbed or somehow pose a safety risk,” Niehoff said. “Health and safety is of the utmost importance. But we never want to see a young person experience something like this.”
Niehoff told TODAY that the referee had good intentions, but could have handled the situation better. She said NHFS “strongly supports anyone’s right to exercise freedom of religion.”
“Why should Muslim girls, who want to follow their constitutionally protected right, have an extra barrier to fully participate in sports in Tennessee?” Sabina Mohyuddin wrote in a statement to TODAY. Mohyuddin is the executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council. She is fighting for the hijab policy to be overturned.
“This rule was used to humiliate a 14-year-old student in front of her peers. It was traumatizing to say the least,” said Mohyuddin. “We have Muslim girls across the state playing sports. Religious barriers to playing sports should not exist in this day and age. This rule is akin to telling Muslim girls that they need permission to be Muslim.”