Deering High School in Portland, Maine, is reportedly the first high school in the country to provide Muslim student athletes with sport hijabs, and no one is more surprised they’re first as the Deering folks themselves.
“We kind of figured we’d be first in the state of Maine, maybe even New England,” the school’s athletic director Melanie Craig told Yahoo Style. But the first in the country? “We had absolutely no idea. We were blown away.”
Traditional hijabs, which are garments many Muslim women use to cover their hair in an expression of their faith, are not typically conducive to the physical rigors of an athlete’s life. “We’d have someone right in the middle of a tennis match and she’s trying to fix her hijab while trying to hit the ball,” Craig explains.
Sulwan Ahmed, a high school junior who plays on the lacrosse team, told Yahoo Style about the difficulties of wearing her hijab while also trying to play her best. “I’m a goalie, so if I don’t watch the ball for a second, that’s a decision that could lead to the other team scoring on us,” Ahmed said. “With a regular hijab it was really hard and I was always adjusting it.”
Sport hijabs, on the other hand, are made from fabric that is designed to stay in place and wick sweat, allowing the athlete to focus her attention on the sport and not on whether her hijab is in danger of falling off.
When Craig heard about athletic hijabs being made by a company based in the Midwest called asiya, she became interested in how to get them for her Muslim students. As Deering is a public school and Craig wanted to avoid criticism for spending taxpayer funds on religious clothing, she embarked upon a little research.
“As an athletic administrator, for every one of my student athletes I’m just thinking about what’s the most current, what’s the best equipment, what are the advances in uniforms or softball bats, or whatever,” Craig says. Of finding the athletic hijabs, she adds, “To me it was a no-brainer.”
While Craig was looking into how to get the headscarves for her students, Deering’s tennis team co-captains Liva Piece and Anaise Manikunda — neither of whom are Muslim — went ahead and set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to get enough hijabs for all the Muslim girls on the school’s tennis team. “We wanted to help students feel more included,” Pierce told the Bangor Daily News.
Their GoFundMe ended up raising $800, enough to buy hijabs for girls on all of Deering’s sports teams including volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, and track.
According to a statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations made to the Associated Press, Deering is believed to be the first high school in the country that provides sport hijabs to students rather than students having to provide their own headscarves.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, founder and editor in chief of the popular website MuslimGirl, recounts her own experience with hijabs and high school sports to Yahoo Style, underscoring how important inclusivity really is, particularly during the teen years. “The first year I started wearing a headscarf, I wanted to try out for my school’s soccer team so badly,” she says. “Not just because I loved the sport, but also because I wanted to prove to myself that my new religious attire wouldn’t discourage me from doing the things I wanted as a teenage girl.”
She recalls the panic of showing up to try-outs where all the other girls wore high ponytails, shorts, and knee-high socks. “In my makeshift ‘modest’ outfit that I threw together at home, I felt so painfully out of place and like I didn’t belong on the team. Offering sports headscarves as an optional part of Muslim student athletes’ uniforms will make it so that more Muslim girls don’t feel alienated or excluded like I did. Something as resolvable as attire availability shouldn’t be the reason that girls turn away from sports.”
Both international soccer organization FIFA and the International Basketball Federation only just recently lifted previously imposed bans on head coverings during play — stipulations which made professional sports impossible for women from nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which demand female athletes wear hijabs. Meanwhile, the Rio Olympics in 2016 marked the first time ever an American athlete medaled while wearing a hijab. Nike has also announced that their line of sports hijabs will be made available in early 2018.
Craig anticipates that the availability of hijabs will double the number of female Muslim student athletes at Deering. Naturally, being first means that Deering’s choice has faced substantial backlash — much of it online. “For me it was eye-opening,” Craig said of the backlash they faced. “I’m a middle-aged white woman. What do I know about the battles that my kids are fighting every day.”
“I think I took some things for granted,” she continued. “It was a wake-up call for me to be a stronger, more vocal advocate.”
As for how the sport hijabs are going over at Deering, they’re a huge success. “I love these hijabs, they literally are the greatest thing that has happened to me at Deering,” Ahmed says, also explaining she could choose her hijab to be white, purple, or black according to school colors. “When the sports hijabs were introduced, I was so happy,” she said. “Now I get to the field and I feel so fierce.”
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