Religious runner exalts victory over athletes expression

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Noor Abukaram’s elation at finishing one of her first varsity cross-country races quickly turned to disappointment when she failed to find her name among those in her high school teammates on the hit list.

Much to Abukaram’s shock, she learned that she had been disqualified for something she had done all season as a Muslim athlete: wearing a hijab.

“My worst nightmare just came true,” Abukaram said this month as he recalled the October 2019 race in which his team from Sylvania Northview in the suburbs of Toledo qualified for the regional championships of the United States. ‘Ohio.

At the time, Ohio High School Athletic Association rules prohibited most headgear and caps unless competitors received religious exemption waivers in advance. Abukaram’s coach admitted he made a mistake in not getting a waiver but said he didn’t think it was necessary as it hadn’t been an issue in previous races.

Abukaram’s experience and his efforts to prevent similar episodes elsewhere have recently drawn national attention. Last year, the National Federation of State High School Associations announced that it would no longer require state approval to allow soccer or volleyball players to wear religious head coverings during the games.

Later that year, the association approved the same rule change for basketball, softball, track and field, field hockey, and spirit. Previously, state athletic associations had to approve all headgear.

In Ohio, Abukaram didn’t have long to wait before the world learned of his disqualification thanks to a viral Facebook post from his cousin. And soon after, her plight caught the attention of State Senator Theresa Gavarone, a Bowling Green Republican outraged by the girl’s treatment.

Gavarone, who is Roman Catholic, recalled the experience of his hockey and lacrosse player son who was allowed to wear a Christian cross under his pads as long as he stuck it to his chest. Anger over Abukaram’s situation sparked her “inner hockey mom,” the senator said.

“No student-athlete should have to choose between exercising their deep religious beliefs and participating in the sport they love,” Gavarone said.

Gavarone’s first bill protecting these beliefs died in 2020, but by then the high school athletic association had changed its rules to allow referees to approve the use of religious headgear if a coach requests it before a competition, without formal renunciation.

“For decades this waiver was just a normal process of head covering, for medical, religious, cultural reasons, it was just part of the sport,” said Tim Stried, director of media relations. at OHSAA.

Stried said Abukaram’s disqualification led organization officials to question the need for the early waiver.

“Why would we have the waiver there if it’s natural to wear that?” he said. “So that led to some pretty quick changes.”

Gavarone hoped that such attention to the matter would settle the matter. Then, in the spring of 2020, Abukaram was wrongly asked for a waiver before competing in the 1600 meter relay in a track race. She was allowed to compete but, fearing it could happen again, she contacted Gavarone.

“We need to reintroduce this because it’s clear that the rules are subject to change, and once discriminatory policies are put in place, people will continue to enforce them,” Abukaram said.

Gavarone reintroduced the bill in May 2021. The House and Senate approved the legislation that year with broad bipartisan support, and Gov. Mike DeWine signed it into law in February.

Abukaram, 18, is now a freshman at Ohio State studying fashion design and the sports industry — and still a runner. She was encouraged not only by bipartisan support for the bill, but also by support from other religious groups, including Christians and Jews.

“It was kind of like a no-brainer that what happened to me was a form of discrimination and that religious freedom is something everyone can agree on,” Abukaram said.

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