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Mistakes and oversights: two things modestly dressed runners are used to in the world of high school athletics. Noor Alexandria Abukaram is no exception.
You might remember her story making headlines in 2019 when she was a junior at Northview High School in Ohio, running cross-country. Abukaram had just ran her 5K PR, but learned after crossing the finish line that her hijab violated uniform regulations. It was not the first race she’d run that year. And every previous one she’d worn the religious headwear with no objection.
“I was completely humiliated by, like, everybody knowing that I just ran my PR, and it wasn’t on record,” Abukaram told ABC at the time.
Like many other high school athletics governing bodies, the Ohio High School Athletic Association required that runners fill out a waiver before being able to make modest dress changes to their uniform.
Abukaram was not aware of the regulation at the time, since it had gone unenforced earlier in the season. Her coach accepted the blame for not having the waiver, but it was the teen who paid the price in what should have been an important race for her.
It lead many to question why veiled runners need to ask permission in the first place.
A Change of Pace
Ayah Aldadah, now 21 and running track and cross-country at the University of Illinois, had an easier experience in high school athletics. Having an older sister who ran at the high school level before her, she was aware she needed a waiver to wear her hijab.
Her coach was diligent about the process, keeping her waiver in a binder with him during meets. “As we were checking our uniform and bib numbers, he would show the waiver to the officials and make sure that I had my uniform, my long sleeves, and my hijab approved for the race,” she says.
It wasn’t until she moved on to college, where she didn’t need to keep a form with her to compete (the NCAA does not have a similar rule), that she realized how othering her high school experience was.
“People were mostly shocked that I needed the approval. It just did make me feel a little bit singled out and feel like that I needed to prove that I was able to be there,” she says.
Aldadah recently shared her experience, testifying in front of the Illinois House of Representatives on a bill that ultimately became law in July of this year. The Inclusive Athletic Attire Act ensures that all student athletes can modify their uniforms for cultural or religious reasons without penalty.
“We wrote a legislation to allow them to modify their uniform based on their cultural religious preferences and physical comfort, so this is applicable to boys and girls, different faith communities, different physical preferences,” says Maaria Mozaffar, director of advocacy and policy at the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition.
The legislation passed unanimously in the State, House, and the Illinois General Assembly. “We expect it to be a model for the nation,” says Mozaffar.
Mozaffar is particularly passionate about making communities more inclusive. “Diversity is humanity’s greatest asset,” she says. As a runner and triathlete who grew up and found herself in sport, she felt drawn to helping young athletes who have faced discrimination based on how they dress. “I want so many girls to be able to learn what I learned, hitting the pavement.”
Let Noor Run
Though she started hoping to help the Muslim community in Illinois, specifically, Mozaffar realized quickly it was a much bigger problem. “The more we researched, the more we realized this impacts a lot of girls and a lot of communities, and that the doors are really shut for them to be able to participate.”
With the success of the Inclusive Athletic Attire Act in Illinois, she hopes policymakers in other states will reach out and begin their own legislative process. Like legislators in Ohio.
After launching her Let Noor Run campaign, Abukaram became the face of a similar bill. In June, the bill passed in the state Senate, but is awaiting review by the Primary and Secondary Education Committee in the Ohio House of Representatives. If passed, this law would also prevent schools from requesting waivers or approval for religious modifications to athletic uniforms.
Even without state legislation, high school athletics may finally be moving away from past requirements on their own. In July, the National Federation of State High School (NFHS) Associations Track and Field Rules Committee added a new rule (4-3-1b 8) that states that students do not need authorization from the state association to wear religious headwear in competition.
A press release from NFHS states that track and field is their eighth sport this year to modify rules related to religious and cultural backgrounds. Volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, spirit, and softball are the other high school sports in which athletes will not need prior approval to wear religious headwear. And in swimming and diving, competitors can now wear modest swimsuits for religious or cultural reasons without prior sign off.
Aldadah believes the previous rules and waiver kept people like her out of high school sports. “I feel like that’s a huge reason why girls or boys aligned with modesty don’t get into sport is because they have that worry that they’re just going to have to go through a lot of barriers or will get disqualified because of the waiver.”
Mozaffar hopes these changes will encourage more people, especially girls, to participate in sports. “There are people with cultural restrictions or religious restrictions—in the past who felt that, ‘This is not my turf. My body is not made for this. My identity is not made for this,’” she says. “We want that to be everybody’s turf. To be able to challenge themselves and learn about their own skill and their own power is such a confidence builder for young athletes.”