Noor Abukaram, a student at The Bounty Collegium in Ohio, was signed up to participate in a race with the Sylvania Northview High School Girls Cross Country Team over the weekend, a team she has been a part of for the past three years.
However, after finishing the race, Abukaram found out she was disqualified because of her religious headwear, something she said she “always feared”.
According to the 16-year-old, who recalled the incident via her cousin’s Facebook, the team’s uniforms were being checked by Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) officials ahead of the race when a teammate was asked to change her shorts to match the rest of the runners.
“Immediately, I began to wonder if they were going to call on me next since I was wearing all black pants and hijab,” Abukaram wrote. “I have been a student athlete my entire life, and every time we compete, the thought crosses my mind during uniform checks.”
Officials did not call on Abukaram, but they did speak to her coach, Jeffery Flowers, and informed him that Abukaram would not be allowed to qualify unless she removed her Nike sports hijab - a conversation that was not relayed to the student before the race began.
On Facebook, Abukaram recalled the moment that her and her teammates went to look at their placings after the race, at which point she realised “my name wasn’t on there”.
Confused, Abukaram says she pointed out what she thought was a mistake to her teammates, who then informed her that she had been disqualified because of her hijab.
“Immediately my heart drops, I become nauseous and feel like I got punched in the gut,” Abukaram wrote. “This is something that I had always feared which has now become a reality. I just walked away and my teammates didn’t say anything else.”
According to Abukaram, the situation left her feeling “humiliated, disappointed, rejected and in denial” and she feels that her “rights as an athlete were violated” because she was not given the same opportunity as her teammate.
“I wasn’t given the chance to explain myself to them because they didn’t have the decency to tell me what the issue was,” she wrote.
Speaking to Yahoo, Flowers said he was asked by officials to provide a “written exemption letter coaches are required to have for uniform violations” for Abukaram’s hijab ahead of the race, which he did not have.
According to Flowers, he was then informed that Abukaram could either be substituted with another runner, asked to remove her hijab, or race but be disqualified at the finish.
Flowers says he felt there was no time to argue the decision and that “the official didn’t feel he had the authority to do the right thing and not disqualify her”.
Flowers timed Abukaram’s race for her, knowing it would not be officially count. She ended up finishing in 22 minutes and 22 seconds, the best race of her season.
Following the race, the varsity cross-country coach says he checked the rule book, and was unable to find “any clause that prevents or prohibits hair coverings like Noor’s”.
Abukaram reiterated this, writing on Facebook that “this rule does NOT exist in writing” and that she feels she should “not have to get a waiver signed and approved by OHSAA to allow me to race due to my religious head covering”.
In response to the post, which has been shared more than 2,000 times, Abukaram has received an outpouring of support.
“I hope this brave young woman helps clear a path and correct the situation for all of the girls that will compete after her wearing hijabs,” one person wrote.
Another commented: “From one Ohioan to another, I am so sorry to hear about this Noor! Undeniably discriminatory and incredibly unfair!”
The Independent has contacted the OHSAA for comment.
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