Earlier this month, 16-year-old runner Noor Alexandra Abukaram was disqualified from a high school cross country meet in Ohio for wearing hijab. The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) said she needed a waiver in order to wear anything outside of uniform rules during the race, including any head coverings. After she posted about her experience on Facebook, Abukaram received an outpouring of international support, including from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ilhan Omar . Following the uproar, OHSAA announced this week that it will change the rule that led to the disqualification.
This is Abukaram’s account of what it was like to have her anxieties about wearing the hijab as an athlete realized, and everything that’s transpired since then. Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity.
I'm a junior in high school, and I've been wearing hijab since 2016. After I got cut from the high school soccer team earlier this year, I decided to run cross country. I quickly fell in love with the sport.
I was used to playing soccer—a sport that’s super subjective. One coach can think that you're super good, and another thinks you're not good enough to be on the team. But with cross country, it's very obvious. If you have this time, then you're running varsity. And that's all it is. It was almost like a release running cross country because I'm the only one who can determine how the race goes, which is why what happened to me at the District Invitationals was particularly ironic.
That day, my team and I went to the starting line to get checked in per usual. They check our jerseys and make sure that nobody has any uniform violations. Even though I’d never faced religious discrimination in sports until later that day, I've always had a sense of anxiety during these uniform check-ins. Part of that anxiety is because my older sister and cousins have had so many issues with their hijab when it comes to sports, like referees telling them to take their pants off.
But at that meet, only one of the girls on my team got a warning from the marshall that her shorts weren't uniform because they had a black stripe. (Everyone else was wearing plain black shorts.) So they made her change her shorts. There weren’t any other issues. Then they were like “All right, you guys are good to go.”
Athletes have the right to be told if something they’re wearing is a uniform violation before the race, and then given a chance to change their uniform. But nobody said anything to me. I wouldn’t have changed, but they didn't even give me the chance to address it.
After the check-in, I lined up on the starting line and I was feeling so relieved because, again, I always had anxiety about it. Then I ran the race in 22 minutes and 22 seconds, my personal record at the time. After I finished the race, I was giving all my teammates hugs as we celebrated learning that we qualified for regionals. But when we went to go get recognized and look at our individual placings, I noticed my name wasn't there next to my teammates’. I looked at the girls that I was running with and asked, “Where's my name?” But they didn’t know. So we all walked over to the girls on my team that hadn't been racing, and I told them my name was missing. That’s when they looked at me with serious expressions and told me I’d been disqualified.
Disqualifications happen all the time in cross country, so I thought it was something weird, like I had left a bracelet on. I asked,”For what?” and they look at me dead in the eye and one of them goes, “because of your hijab.” At that moment my heart was breaking because I worked really, really hard this whole season. I came in late in the season and I had to prove to the coach that I would get up to speed. I decreased my time by four minutes in one season. After running my best race and crossing that finish line, seeing that I PR'd and then finding out that it didn't count officially was really heartbreaking. Then hearing it from my teammates, who I'm already very different from, telling me it’s because of your hijab, it was like my worst nightmare came true.
They said that I needed a waiver in order to wear hijab during the meet, but it had never been an issue at any of my previous races. I felt really bad when my coach approached me afterwards, apologizing for not getting the waiver signed and blaming himself. I looked at him and I said, “There shouldn't have to be a waiver. You shouldn't have to go through extra steps for me to participate.” That's what hurt my heart. I'm already different from everybody that I run on the team with, and I already don't go to school with them. Having him go through extra steps to get a waiver approved only sets me apart even more than I already am.
After the race, I took a couple days for myself before I decided to go public with what happened, because I needed some time to think and gather my thoughts. Running is so mental and I still had that regional race the following weekend. I needed to make sure that it wasn't going to affect me or my race negatively. With the help of my cousin, I chose to post a status about it, and was pleasantly surprised to see it take off.
Since then, I've been getting so many messages from different people around the world saying, “this happened to me five years ago” or “this just happened to me.” They just never had the opportunity to speak up and say what happened.
Alhamdullah, I'm a very strong person. A lot of people aren't, and it could really affect them in a negative way. Still, it did really hurt me, and I never expected anything to hurt me this bad. In the days before I posted it online, I took time to think about it and wondered, Is it really that big of a deal? There's really bad things happening in the world right now. And then I realized that it was my duty to come out and talk to people about it and make sure that this never happens again.
Last weekend I was able to run regionals with my hijab without any issues, and I achieved a new personal record: 21 minutes, 51 seconds.
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