Muslim Runner In Ohio Reflects On The Impact Of Race DQ

In the five days since Noor Abukaram was disqualified from her district championship cross country race in Toledo, Ohio, for wearing a hijab, the Sylvania Northview High School runner has had time to process, think and reflect on what it truly means to be a Muslim girl in today's world. 

"I have been going through a whole train of emotions," the 16-year-old said Thursday by phone.

The consensus she's reached isn't anger, as it might be for someone who had a personal 5K record wiped away. Nor is it spite, over a supposed rule targeting religious attire. 

Those two things would disguise the real issue at hand. 

It's that of understanding. 

Muslim girls competing in sanctioned high school sports across the country should never be pressured to explain why their Islamic faith shouldn't be governed in a rulebook, she said. And now there's a conversation that needs to be had, and she's willing to go the distance to inform others, including her state association, on why religious beliefs shouldn't get in the way of sports. 

"I feel passionate that things will change and I am confident that things will be different next time," she said. 

Some might point first to the rule that was enforced at the district meet and balk at the issue of discrimination: That when the Sylvania Northview girls coach, Jerry Flowers, was asked for the specific Ohio High School Athletic Association waiver required of Abukaram's headscarf on Saturday, he didn't have it on hand. Rules are rules. 

But Abukaram, who attends a small Islamic school in Sylvania called The Bounty Collegium and is given the opportunity to compete for Northview sports teams, hadn't needed it in five previous outings. 

There's a reason why other officials never questioned the uniform. And there's a reason why Flowers stopped thinking about it -- common sense told him he didn't need to. State athletic associations shouldn't have the ability to govern someone's beliefs. 

The official couldn't have understood why she joined cross country in the first place: That after she was cut from the high school's soccer team, she felt sadness and wanted to pursue an activity where there would be no judgement, only starts and finishes and fates in which she could control. 

When reached for comment, the National Federation of High School's Director of Sports, Julie Cochran, said that the organization encourages its member states to respect religious beliefs, but that each state ultimately has a say in enforcing its rules. The OHSAA mostly goes by the NFHS rules governing track and field and cross country--uniform rule 4-3-1--but as this case has proved, has specific exceptions. Section 11.8 in the OHSAA guidebook declares a waiver necessary for "religious headgear." 

On Wednesday and Thursday, OHSAA spokesperson Tim Stried responded to an inquiry by MileSplit to say that Abukaram is now eligible to compete at regionals after her school submitted the required waiver. The race official on Saturday, he wrote, was simply enforcing a rule "since a waiver had not been submitted." 

The next day that came, "and the request was approved immediately," Stried said, "which will permit the student-athlete to compete this week at regional competition."

The state organization is even going a step further by saying "the OHSAA is also already looking at this specific uniform regulation to potentially modify it in the future." 

But it doesn't erase what happened on Saturday to Abukaram. 

"At first when I was told I was DQ'ed, I was in disbelief," she said. "I felt like I got hit in the head. And then I felt humiliated, because I was running this race without the knowledge I was DQ'ed. Everyone around me knew. I still was running super hard. I felt disrespected. The officials themselves, who told my teammate her shorts were in violation, weren't giving me the same respect." 

It would have been impossible for the official to know then the origin's of Abukaram's faith, that she first put on her headscarf in public in 2016 and, in the eyes of Islam, started the journey of becoming a Muslim woman, joining her mother and grandmother, inspirations who had proudly worn the hijab for longer than she was born. 

There would have been no way for the official to know that she had been wearing it in soccer practices and soccer games for the past three seasons, or that she had been wearing it at track and field meets since her freshman year. Northview had never imposed any such rule for her.

The official couldn't have understood why she joined cross country in the first place: That after she was cut from the high school's soccer team, she felt sadness and wanted to pursue an activity where there would be no judgement, only starts and finishes and fates in which she could control. 

"It was relieving to play a sport where you're talent wasn't questioned," she said. 

Abukaram thought long and hard about whether to speak up on Saturday. She ultimately chose to tell a family cousin, Zobaida S. Falah, who is a social activist in Ohio and wrote a detailed post on the experience on Facebook. 

The exchange went viral. Local and national media picked up the story, including local newspaper Toledo Blade and national outlet Yahoo. 

The purpose of revealing her story on Facebook was in part to let others know just what she went through. But it also was a means to having a large conversation. 

In ensuing days, along with her mother and father, she's had that. 

Dialogue is often what leads to solutions. Abukaram's mother, Yolanda Melendez, is helping her daughter in that respect. She has set up a meeting with CARE (Council on American-Islamic Relations) to prompt a discussion with the OHSAA on how to further promote inclusion in high school sports - which essentially boils down to, Can we please get rid of this archaic rule? 

"It's to help people understand," Melendez said, "Not just how Noor felt, but we would like to get rid of the waiver expectation all together." 

In due time, Abukaram will take up the cause and try to inform others better ways of inclusion. 

But in the meantime, she says, she's got one more race. 

Her district time of 22:22--a new personal best--was erased on Saturday. But she's got a new goal. 


And she's ready to run toward it. 

"That's what I've been striving for all season," she said.