A Tennessee school is backing a Muslim student who was removed from a volleyball game because she wore a hijab without prior approval.
The incident occurred during a Sept. 15 away match played by a junior varsity team from Valor Collegiate Academies, a charter school based in Nashville. Right before the game started, a referee informed freshman player Najah Aqeel and her assistant coach she could not play because her hijab had not been approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and its state-level organization Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), The Tennessean reported.
According to NHHS rules, players can only wear “hair devices made of soft material and no more than three inches wide may be worn in the hair or on the head.”
Aqeel and her coaches insist they did not know anything about the rule. The 14-year-old wore the garment during past matches.
“As an athletic department, we are extremely disappointed that we were not aware of this rule or previously informed of this rule in our 3 years as a TSSAA [Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association] member school,” Valor athletics director Cameron Hill said in a statement. “We are also frustrated that this rule has been selectively enforced as evidenced by the fact that student-athletes have previously competed while wearing hijabs.”
Hill’s statement also referred to the rule as “antiquated” and “oppressive.”
He revealed a new rule stating members of Valor’s athletic teams will not attend games “if any individual player is disallowed to play for any discriminatory reason.”
“Valor is also working to take any measure necessary to make it known that we oppose the unconscionable rule and advocate for it to be changed,” Hill’s statement continued.
The disqualification left Aqeel in tears.
“I was crying, not because I was hurt. I was crying because I was angry. I just thought it was unfair,” she recalled to HuffPost.
Hill’s statement noted the volleyball coach called the TSSAA and received approval within 30 minutes but the game was over by then.
“We are shocked, outraged and disappointed that this happened,” Hill added. “This student and her family should never have had to face this situation.”
American Muslim Advisory Council executive director Sabina Mohyuddin expressed outrage in a separate statement.
“Why should Muslim girls, who want to follow their constitutionally protected right, have an extra barrier to fully participate in sports in Tennessee? This rule was used to humiliate a 14-year-old student in front of her peers,” Mohyuddin stated. “It was traumatizing to say the least. We have Muslim girls across the state playing sports. Religious barriers to playing sports should not exist in this day and age. This rule is akin to telling Muslim girls that they need permission to be a Muslim.”
Bernard Childress, the executive director of the TSSAA, believes the ref was simply following the rules.
“TSSAA has always granted exceptions to any student that wishes to participate with headwear, or other articles of clothing, due to religious reasons,” Childress said in a statement to HuffPost.
“The request in this situation was submitted to our office on Wednesday, September 16, and was approved immediately.”