Woman disqualified in cross country for wearing hijab asks for religious expression legislation

Noor Abukaram, of Sylvania, testifies at a Wednesday meeting of the Ohio Senate Education Committee. Screenshot from the Ohio Channel.

Noor Abukaram was 16 when she became fearful of the consequences of her hijab at her cross country meets.

After running a personal best in a hijab designed by Nike meant to be used during sports, Sylvania resident Abukaram found out she had been disqualified because of what was considered a uniform violation. 

Her mother was used to this, to the point where the family knew sports rule books backward and forward. They knew they needed to notify race administrators of any uniform changes. But nothing had changed for Abukaram.

“(Abukaram’s mother) didn’t deem the hijab a uniform change, just as they don’t deem a student wearing a necklace with a cross on it a uniform change,” Abukaram told the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. “It’s not a uniform, it’s something that I wear because of my religion, it’s a part of me.”

Abukaram appeared Wednesday in front of the committee to support a bill to allow student religious expression in extracurricular activities. The committee met twice on Senate Bill 288, just as they did another student religious expression bill, passed by the Ohio Senate on Wednesday

Under the bill, schools, school districts, interscholastic conferences and their regulators can’t make rules barring “religious apparel” when participating in athletics and extracurricular activities. This includes any rules, like those in place when Abukaram competed, that require advanced approval or written waivers for apparel.

Howie Beigelman, of the Ohio Jewish Communities, also submitted testimony supporting the bill, arguing that government shouldn’t be allowed to infringe on religious rights. He said allowing student athletes to wear specific clothing around their peers could benefit everyone involved.

“Such interactions on the field and on the court help disprove stereotypes, educate in a unique way, break down barriers, and build friendships.” Beigelman said in written testimony.

Abukaram said living her experience helped her “understand my place as an athlete in America,” and the anxiety she, her sister and cousin feel wearing their hijabs in public situations. In the committee hearing, she received an apology from Sen. Vernon Sykes, D-Columbus.

“I’d like to apologize to you as a policy maker that a policy was in place that was so insensitive and it harmed you in the way that it did,” Sykes said. 

The bill was unanimously passed through the committee, and will now move on for a full Senate vote.

Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.