According to CNN, Aqeel’s coach informed her of the referee’s decision while she was warming up for their September 15 match. The official referred to a casebook rule stipulating athletes who wear the aforementioned headscarf for games need permission from the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA).
The freshman, who said she played previous games with a hijab though she did not have an authorization, decided to sit out instead of removing it in order to be eligible to play.
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“I was angry, sad and also shocked just because I had never heard of the rule before that,” she told CNN. “The rule has no business being in the casebook. It singles out hijabis. I don’t see why I need approval to wear my hijab when it is a part of my religion.”
The Volleyball Casebook from The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSH), the organization behind most of the rules for sporting events in high schools in the country, states that for athlete uniforms, “the player must have authorization from the state association to wear the hijab or other types of items for religious reasons as it is otherwise illegal.”
The executive director for NFSH, Karissa Niehoff, however, told CNN the uniform rules are flexible and states can decide whether or not to apply them on their own discretion.
“We are heartbroken and deeply sorry that the young lady was disqualified from the match for wearing the hijab,” said Niehoff. “More common sense should have been demonstrated by the adults. The correct approach the referee should have taken is to have allowed the young lady to play and point out after the game that next time she needs to submit a letter.”
Niehoff said the casebook rules on the wearing of religious headwear in games will be amended to prevent such an inconvenience from occurring again in the future, adding that an athlete would be refused to play with such a headgear when it is established it can potentially harm the player or other athletes.
An athletic director at Aqeel’s school, Cameron Hill, told CNN the school had no knowledge of the casebook rule and called it “antiquated and oppressive.”
“We want our state to make it understood that there is no need for Muslim women to get permission to wear their religious headwear,” said Hill. “This rule is discriminatory and inequitable. We stand in solidarity with all of our scholars and families and their freedoms to express their religion freely and openly.”
The executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council, Sabina Mohyuddin, also released a statement saying the rule was used to “humiliate” Aqeel.
“Why should Muslim girls, who want to follow their constitutionally protected right, have an extra barrier to fully participate in sports in Tennessee?” the statement said. “This rule was used to humiliate a 14 year old student in front of her peers. 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.”
Responding to Mohyuddin, an attorney for TSSAA said the rules aren’t put in place “with the intention of discriminating against anyone” but are written in that open manner to prevent officials from having to deal with “a multitude of ad hoc decisions about what is or is not permitted, a completely unworkable situation that would lead to arbitrary distinctions,” CNN reports.