“The Spotlight” brings to light the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. In this instalment, we tell the story of Najah Aqeel, the girl who helped to upturn a discriminatory rule in Volleyball.
“I have Muslim friends who play basketball, and they knew nothing about the rule, I wanted to make sure that no other person has to go through this because it did not feel good.”– Najah Aqeel
When 14-year-old Najah Aqeel, a high school freshman at Valor College Prep in Nashville, was told that she couldn’t compete in a junior varsity volleyball game because she was wearing a hijab, she was devastated. A mix of anger and sadness ran through her tears.
The referee had pointed out a rule made by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the body governing most high school sports across the country — that student-athletes wearing “hair devices” measuring over three inches wide would not be able to compete until they secure prior approval from their state athletic association. This rule was what disqualified Najah from competing at the games. It meant that she had to apply for permission to wear her hijab from the governing body.
Seeing the challenge that lay ahead of her, Najah wiped her tears and got to work. She was not about to allow an exclusionary rule stand in the way of her ambition, With the support of her school and the American Muslim Advisory Council, she was determined to change the rule with the hope that no Muslim athlete wearing the hijab in Tennessee or elsewhere, would encounter the same obstacle.
The enforcement of the rule was not as shocking to Najah as the existence of the rule itself. This is because Najah and other Muslim athletes at Valor Prep had competed while wearing their hijabs many times before, without any issues. Cameron Hill, the school’s athletic director, said that he had immediately called the governing body to secure approval for Najah. However, the game was over by the time the letter arrived. Najah’s case, considering that the rule existed long ago, was just a matter of “selective enforcement”.
Najah stayed at the game to cheer her teammates on that day. But the incident had an effect on the team as a whole.“We lost that game because our heads weren’t really in it.” She said.
In an interview with the Lily, Najah’s mother, Aliya said that “This has been going on for so long — Muslim girls wearing hijabs in sports — so I don’t really know what made them decide to single her out this time.”
A representative of the governing body said that the referee was not at fault and that the rule was not intended to target religious headwear but to instead prevent athletes from wearing items such as scarves and bandannas. “There was not any wrongdoing in this instance,” said Matthew Gillespie, the assistant executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. “The referee in question applied the rule correctly as it was written.”
Najah’s activism paid off after all. The NFHS announced earlier this month that Volleyball players across the country will be able to compete while wearing religious headwear without getting prior approval. The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association also announced that athletes can now compete in any sport while wearing hijabs, Sikh turbans and Jewish kippahs without getting prior approval.
“I feel like it makes hijabis who are playing sports feel like they can play sports,” she said. “Sometimes they steer away from sports, because they don’t know if they can wear their hijab, or they don’t know if they can wear sleeves and long pants.”– Najah Aqeel
TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.