A high school athlete was disqualified from a volleyball match last week after a referee cited a rule that players need prior authorization to wear a hijab.
Najah Aqeel, a freshman at Valor Collegiate Prep in Nashville, Tennessee, was warming up when her coach relayed the referee's decision to bar her from playing.
"I was angry. It didn’t make any sense," Najah, 14, told TODAY. "I didn't understand why I needed permission to wear something for religious reasons."
The teen’s mother, Aliya Aqeel, recalled how her daughter came to her in the bleachers with tears streaming down her face.
"She was crying hysterically," Aliya told TODAY. "She was just so upset. She didn’t understand why she was being targeted."
Still, Najah stayed and cheered for her team.
Cameron Hill, the athletic director at Valor Collegiate Academies, told TODAY in an email that he was unaware of policy by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, or TSSAA, that requires players to get approval from the association to wear a hijab. Until Sept. 15, the day Najah was disqualified from her volleyball match, Najah and other Muslim athletes had worn hijabs during games without incident, according to Hill.
Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, the body that writes rules for many high school sports in the U.S. and of which the TSSAA is a part, believes the referee had good intentions but used poor judgement.
"Our rules were developed to prevent kids from wearing things that might be grabbed or somehow pose a safety risk," Niehoff told TODAY. "Health and safety is of the upmost importance. But we never want to see a young person experience something like this."
Niehoff added that the NFHS "strongly supports anyone’s right to exercise freedom of religion" and said officials will be trained in diversity, equity and inclusion issues going forward.
The rule in the NFHS volleyball rule book states that "hair devices made of soft material and no more than 3 inches wide may be worn in the hair or on the head." It also notes that players "must have authorization from the state association to wear the hijab or other types of items for religious reasons as it is otherwise illegal."
The Middle Tennessee Volleyball Association, which provided the referee for the game, did not immediately respond to TODAY's request for comment.
Hill, the athletic director at Valor Collegiate Academies, also told TODAY via email that he was "angry and deeply saddened" that Najah was "ostracized in front of her peers and family."
"The way she approached the situation showed a level of maturity beyond her years," Hill wrote. He added that the school will be taking action to petition the NFHS to change the "antiquated" and "oppressive" rule requiring students to get special permission to participate in high school sports with the hijab.
Sabina Mohyuddin, executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council, a nonprofit that advocates for the civil rights of Muslims in Tennessee, said she is demanding the policy be overturned.
"Why should Muslim girls, who want to follow their constitutionally protected right, have an extra barrier to fully participate in sports in Tennessee?" Mohyuddin wrote in a statement to TODAY. "This rule was used to humiliate a 14 year old student in front of her peers. It was traumatizing to say the least. We have Muslim girls across the state playing sports. Religious barriers to playing sports should not exist in this day and age. This rule is akin to telling Muslim girls that they need permission to be Muslim."
Former college basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, who played Division I at the University of Memphis and Indiana State University, echoed Mohyuddin's sentiments. Abdul-Qaadir, who is Muslim, gave up a career overseas because the International Basketball Federation had prohibited religious head coverings. (The rule was overturned in 2017.)
"This arbitrary and archaic rule that @NFHS_Org has in place, that basically says, Muslim girls need approval to BE MUSLIM on the courts and fields, needs to be dropped!" the 29-year-old wrote on Twitter. "We don’t need a paper to make everyone else feel comfortable with what we believe in and choose to wear. The rule clearly targets Muslim women and girls, PERIOD."