Disqualified for racing in hijab, Noor Abukarum becomes change maker

Photo of Noor Abukaram
Haute Hijab/Courtesy

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Sports should be for everyone. But quite often, reality often falls short of this ideal. Noor Abukaram, 17, of Ohio knows this all too well. On October 19, 2019 she was disqualified from her high school cross country race for wearing a hijab. It sent a message loud and clear to Abukaram: Sports are not for you.

But Abukaram refused to listen.

“Hijabis and Muslim women can be the face of athletics,” Abukaram said. “I can be the face of a cross country race or in a running magazine.”

At the Ohio district cross country meet, Noor crossed the 5k finish line in 22:22, a personal best. But when results were posted, her name was missing from the list. At first, she thought it was just a simple mistake. But when she asked her teammates what had happened, she found out that she had been disqualified for racing in her hijab. Abukaram’s coach hadn’t completed the necessary paperwork allowing her to race in her headscarf. Even before the starting gun had gone off, race officials had disqualified her, and she had been kept completely in the dark.

Adding insult to injury, one of Abukaram’s teammates had been wearing the wrong shorts at the race. Rather than immediate disqualification, she was given an opportunity to change clothing before racing. Since Abukaram was not offered the same courtesy, she wasn’t even able to advocate for her own right to a hijab before the race.

In the days following the cross country meet, Abukaram felt withdrawn. She didn’t want to confront what had happened to her; she simply wanted her coach to fill out the waiver so she could race again.

“It took my sister to slap me in the face and say ‘We have a little sister who is going to be wearing a hijab soon. Do you really want this same thing to happen again to her? To the next generation of hijabi athletes that’s going to come through?’ ” Abukaram said.

And so Abukaram got to work, partnering with Ohio Senator Theresa Gavarone to draft Ohio state SB 288. Gavarone agreed: It wasn’t right that Abukaram required a special waiver to race with everyone else. SB 288 prohibits schools and interscholastic organizations from creating rules that infringe on the right to wear religious apparel. It passed unanimously June 24, 2020.

Abukaram used her experience as a victim of exclusion and discrimination in Ohio high school sports to catalyse change. And the bill extends far beyond cross country: Any high school extracurricular activity — from football to chess — falls under SB 288’s domain.

Following her work with the Ohio State Legislature, Abukaram organized the campaign “Let Noor Run Virtual 5k” to raise money for the House of Innovation, a community maker space with a goal of promoting diversity and inclusion across all fields.

The hijabs donated through the 5k will be given back to Toledo inner city schools in a collaboration with the Toledo Public Schools’ equity, diversity and inclusion department, according to Abukaram.

“Me, as a hijabi athlete, being handed a tank top and shorts to run in a cross country race, is completely foolish because I can’t wear that. I have to get leggings, a long sleeve shirt and a sports hijab to wear,” Abukaram said. “Just showing the hijabis in the school systems, ‘Hey, we have hijabs for you. It’s all accessible, just like it’s accessible to everyone else’ — that’s another mission that we are taking on.”

Abukaram speaks with the grace of somebody much older than a senior in high school. While she isn’t sure exactly what her plan is following graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in fashion design.

“Way in the future, after I study fashion design, I plan on studying law so that I can help people the same way that Senator Gavarone has helped me,” Abukaram said.

Athletics are deeply important to the Abukaram family. Her mother coached her older sister’s soccer team, and both of Abukaram’s parents are runners. At the end of a long day, the family bonds over sports. So it’s safe to assume that wherever Abukaram is headed, she will continue to lace up her shoes and run. Her love for the sport transcends her efforts to make it more inclusive.

“It’s not just about inclusivity, it’s about the beauty of sports in general. People fall in love with sports because it’s such a raw thing,” Abukaram said. “That’s why we fall in love with them — all that matters is your abilities.”

Sarah Siegel writes for Bear Bytes and is a deputy blog editor. Contact her at [email protected]