High school athlete who ran personal best disqualified for wearing hijab

A high school athlete who ran her personal best at a district meet was disqualified for wearing a hijab, CNN reports. 

Last Saturday, Noor Alexandria Abukaram, a 16-year-old cross-country runner at Sylvania Northview High School in Ohio, participated in a 5K race, in which she finished in 22:22, according to her coach. When Abukaram looked up at the board, however, she noticed that her name and time were not listed. 

"It was like your worst nightmare to have to compete and then find out that you got disqualified and it's because of something that you love," she told the network. "Why should you have to sacrifice your religion and a part of who you are to run, to do another thing that you're very passionate about?"

Abukaram, who competes at Sylvania Northview because the private school she attends doesn't offer sports, made varsity on the cross-country team this year. She is also a member of Sylvania Northview's soccer and track teams. The teenager told CNN she had never been approached or confronted about her hijab until recently. Following the race, her teammates were the first to tell her she had been disqualified because of her head covering.

"When my teammates clarified what happened to me, it broke my heart," Abukaram said.  

When the teenager's father called her following the race, Abukaram broke down, she said. 

"I was sobbing," she recalled. "I couldn't even explain how difficult it was to explain to my father that I got disqualified for my hijab. It was so hard for me because my parents have anyway been my number one supporters when it comes to my hijab." 

In an interview with the network, Abukaram's coach, Jerry Flowers, said he found Abukaram after the race and apologized for the fact her teammates were the ones to break the news to her. He admitted he had been told by an official that he needed paperwork for an exemption for her hijab. Still, Flowers decided to let the teenager run. 

"I knew that asking her to take it off is not respectful to her," the coach explained. "I didn't want to put her in the situation to make it seem like I was putting pressure on her to change who she is. I wanted her to run carefree. I figured she would race better if she didn't know."

Abukaram, who has a waiver to wear her hijab at an upcoming race this Saturday, said she doesn't fault Flowers for doing what he did. 

"I have the best team in the world, and I couldn't ask for a better coach," she said. 

In response to the incident, the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) doubled down on its stance on religious headwear. 

"Cross-country runners may participate in competitions with religious headwear, provided the runner has obtained a waiver from the OHSAA and submitted it to the head official before the race, since it is a change to the OHSAA uniform regulations," the association said in a statement to CNN. "The official was simply enforcing this rule since a waiver had not been submitted."

Since Abukaram's story went public, she said she has been overwhelmed by the amount of support she has received. 

"Before all of this, I felt crushed, betrayed by a sport that I have grown to love so dearly. I was scared with apprehension that my coach and teammates would be negatively affected by all the media," she posted on Facebook on Friday. "I was conflicted. I didn’t want to offend anyone but I knew I had to do something so that no other student athlete competing in hijab would ever endure the humiliation and anguish that I went through last weekend. I am so thankful to each and every person who has shown me love and support."

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