Islamic relations groups demand action after Nashville teen was disqualified from volleyball game for wearing a hijab

Local News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, called on the Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) to drop a requirement that Muslim athletes obtain authorization in order to compete wearing an Islamic headscarf, or hijab.

It follows a recent incident in Nashville, involving a freshman volleyball player at Valor Academy College Prep. Najah Aqeel, 14, was disqualified from a match with Brentwood Academy for wearing a hijab. It happened Tuesday, September 15.

“Of course it was traumatizing,” said Sabina Mohyuddin, Executive Director of the American Muslim Advisory Council. “[Najah] had already played one game without issue and this rule was not brought up.”

News 2 was told the student had informed her coach of her need for religious accommodations regarding uniform at the beginning of the season, yet she was still disqualified from the match.

Najah Aqeel

At Tuesday’s match, Mohyuddin says the referee referenced the National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) 2020-2021 Volleyball Case Book and Officials Manual to disqualify Najah from the match because she needed ‘authorization from the state association to wear the hijab’ for religious reasons.

On Friday, CAIR National Executive Director, Nihad Awad, wrote a letter to NFHS Executive Director Dr. Karissa Niehoff saying in part:

“It has been brought to our attention that a note to rule 4.1 (Note 2, Situation C) in the National Federation of State High School Associations 2020-21 Volleyball Rules Book states: “[T]he 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.”

“This rule violates her first amendment rights,” said Mohyuddin, “It’s discriminatory. We don’t ask a player to get authorization for wearing a knee brace, we understand they need it and they wear it.”

NFHS Case Book

It is important to note that NFHS has both a volleyball rule book and case book. The case book is different from the rule book, as it supplies examples of situations that may occur in regards to the rule book. Case book is in place to give examples of situations to officials.

TSSAA spokesman Matthew Gillespie responded to the incident Friday with this statement:

“The TSSAA is a member of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).  The playing rules for numerous sports sanctioned by the TSSAA, including football, basketball, baseball, softball, track & field, soccer, wrestling, volleyball, and others are written and published by the NFHS, which are national rules that associations in all 50 states abide by.  The NFHS Volleyball Rule Book addresses any headwear that is not part of the uniform, and the rule is not specific to religious headwear.  It could include a scarf, bandana, or other headwear that is contrary to the rule.  The rule book does not specifically say that any student cannot wear an article on their head for religious reasons.  However, these items fall under the restrictions of the rule. TSSAA has always granted exceptions to any student that wishes to participate with headwear, or other articles of clothing, due to religious reasons. The rule book states that an exception may be granted if requested by the administration of the school to the state association.  The request in this situation was submitted to our office on Wednesday, September 16 and was approved immediately.”

“This is basically saying for a Muslim woman that she needs authorization to be a Muslim in the public place to play sports,” said Mohyuddin.

“All I want to do is play volleyball and my religion should never be a topic nor how I practice it!” said Aqeel.

The American Muslim Advisory Council demands that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), which chose to adopt the NFHS rules, revoke this rule since it discriminates against Muslim girls on the basis of religion and gender. The TSSAA should ensure that students of all religious backgrounds in Tennessee have equal access to sports without discriminatory barriers to their full participation. They are now demanding action with a petition.

When asked about possibly changing or altering the rules, Gillepsie says TSSAA cannot change the playing rules in the NFHS rule book as the rule change would be up to NFHS.

Cameron Hill, CAA Director of Athletics Valor Collegiate Academies released this statement to News 2:

“On Tuesday, September 15, an incident occurred at an away game for Valor’s Freshman Volleyball team. One of our players was forbidden from playing in the game due to an antiquated, oppressive rule from the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) handbook requiring state association approval for religious head coverings, with the rationale that it is a change in uniform. As an athletic department we are extremely disappointed that we were not aware of this rule or previously informed of this rule in our 3 years as a TSSAA member school. We are also frustrated that this rule has been selectively enforced as evidenced by the fact that student athletes have previously competed while wearing hijabs. While we were able to get approval from the TSSAA and we now have the letter that will allow players to wear hijabs in the future, we feel this rule is discriminatory and is inequitable. We stand in solidarity with all of our scholars and families and their freedoms to express their religion freely and openly. The athletic department has now enacted a policy that states that our sports teams will stand together in solidarity by committing to not proceed with a game if any individual player is prevented from playing for any discriminatory reason, and to take any measure necessary to make it known that Valor opposes this unconscionable rule and will advocate for it to be changed. Education is a beautiful thing and a place where students and families should come to feel safe and free from the atrocities that plague our society. It is a place where young adults should have room to grow, learn and discover their deepest interests and passions on things they care most about. We should be teaching them and most importantly showing them a good example of what it means to be caring, loving and respectful to every human being. We must teach them the importance of accepting differences and embracing them. We must encourage them that the color of their skin, their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability or gender are welcome in this place. It is these differences that make us all unique and allows us all the ability to be creatively different. I am angry and deeply saddened that one of our scholars had to experience this inequity and even more so that she had to be ostracized in front of her peers and family. I am proud of the courage and strength she displayed when faced with this injustice. I believe we can all learn from the tact, humility and poise she displayed while handling this situation. The way she approached the situation showed a level of maturity beyond her years and I am so proud she is a student-athlete at Valor Collegiate Academies. We are taking action to petition the NFHS (via our state association, TSSAA) to change this rule.”

Karissa Niehoff, Executive Director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, sending News 2 this statement over the weekend:

“The NFHS has established rules relative to uniforms and playing equipment with a central focus on risk minimization. The NFHS strongly supports the Constitutional rights that our young people have to exercise freedom of religion, and has no intent to interfere with those rights. We will take a hard look at the language in our rules publications and continue to work with our state associations as they develop policies related to NFHS playing rules in their states. The NFHS commends the student for bringing this situation to the attention of educational leaders and subsequently to the NFHS.”

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