Noor Alexandria Abukaram identifies as both an athlete and a Muslim – two elements that clashed disappointingly and humiliatingly at a high school cross-country meet in Ohio in 2019.
Abukaram, then 16, had just run the best 5km of her life, finishing the course in 22 minutes and 22 seconds. But a competition official disqualified Abukaram for wearing a hijab while running.
A hijab is a traditional hair and neck covering worn by Muslim women. It symbolizes modesty and religion.
During its 2019 race, Ohio High School Athletic Association the rules required student-athletes wearing religious headgear to obtain permission before the event. But Abukaram’s coach didn’t get permission and it wasn’t a problem all season until the regional qualifier.
“I feel like as an athlete, I’m a competitive person,” Abukaram said. “And that’s just part of who I am. So when that tries to be taken away from me, especially for something like my hijab, which is something I love and care about so much. It’s really humiliating.
In 2020, OHSAA changed the rule to allow athletes to compete while wearing religious headgear unless the official feels it will fundamentally alter the sport or is dangerous to the participant, such as dangling jewelry . The Ohio association worked with its national counterpart to rework the rule.
Abukaram said that over the past few years the regulations have been amended several times. She knew a rule change wouldn’t be enough, and if she didn’t share her story, other girls would face the same discrimination she had.
“OHSAA has clearly shown how necessary this bill is,” Abukaram said. “The law that prohibits organizations from implementing discriminatory policies is so important because regulations are subject to change and the law must protect athletes from them.”
After confiding in her big sister, they both agreed that their little sister would one day want to play sports like they did, and speaking out would hopefully mean no other girl would have to live. what Abukaram did.
“Let’s make his way easier,” she said. “Let’s open some doors so she can walk through a little easier than me or my older sister.”
Abukaram took the pain and ran with it. She started her own movement, hoping to support others who had gone through what she went through and to defend religious freedoms in sport.
Senator Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, contacted Abukaram and his family when she heard his story on the news. They met at a coffee shop for what they both described as an electric reunion that was the catalyst for real change in Ohio.
Senate Bill 181sponsored by Gavarone, was passed unanimously by the Senate and the House.
Abukaram sees this bill as his baby. She has been there every step of the way, from tabling at the Clerk’s desk to Senate and House votes on the bill.
Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bill into law on Monday.
“This bill has really brought the Christian, Jewish and Muslim community together to support this,” Gavarone said. “It was really just a beautiful thing.”
Abukaram is now a freshman at Ohio State University. She is determined to continue her work in defense of religious freedoms and in the fight against discrimination.
Mary Jane Sanese is a member of the EW Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau program at Ohio University.