US high school volleyball players no longer need approval to wear religious head coverings during matches, thanks to a 14-year-old Muslim player who inspired the rule change.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which sets competition rules for most US high school sports, announced on Thursday the new rule and said it could extend to other sports.
Support for the rule change swelled in September after Najah Aqeel, a freshman at Valor Collegiate Prep in Nashville, Tennessee, was disqualified from a volleyball match for wearing a hijab or headscarf.
A referee refused to let her play, citing a casebook rule that required athletes who wear a hijab to be granted authorization from the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA). Najah said she did not have authorization, but that it wasn’t an issue for previous matches.
Faced with the choice to remove her hijab or sit out the match, Najah decided not to play. Most Muslim women who wear the hijab only remove it in the presence of other women or immediate family members.
“I’m really humbled and happy that I got to change the rule for volleyball players across the country,” Najah told CNN. “I hope this will make sure no one else who wears religious headwear and plays sports will have to go through what I did.”
Changing the rule
At the time of the incident, Najah said she was “angry and sad” and felt singled out for her religious beliefs.
NFHS Volleyball Rule 4-1-6 stated: “Hair devices made of soft material and no more than 3 inches wide may be worn in the hair or on the head. …” Because Najah’s hijab was much larger than the allowable 3 inches, she needed state association approval to play.
Najah and her family have worked with the TSSAA, NFHS and American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) to change the rule.
In October, the NFHS approved a proposal for each sport rules committee to consider that would allow players to wear religious head coverings — unless deemed a safety risk to the wearer or other participants — without prior approval from state associations.
The volleyball committee was the first to meet in 2021 and promptly approved the proposal.
“For the committee that was pretty much a no-brainer,” committee chair Jo Auch said in a statement. “Our goal is always to have our athletes be able to participate as long as there isn’t a safety concern involved, so it made perfect sense to relax that rule and remove the requirement for the states to authorize the wearing of religious headwear.”
Other sport rules committees will also consider the proposal. If adopted by all, it would impact most US high school sports.
“Najah and her family have been gracious and patient throughout the significant process; from discovery, to listening to one another, to learning and ultimately to decision-making at the state and national levels,” NFHS executive director Karissa Niehoff said in a statement.
“Najah’s perspective, maturity and ability to communicate define her as a model for young people everywhere. We hope that her situation serves as a reminder of the beautiful fabric of diversity that exists in our schools and society overall.”
A win for religious freedom
Sabina Mohyuddin, executive director of the American Muslim Advisory Council, hailed the rule change as a victory for religious freedom.
“The NFHS ruling is a momentous occasion and sends a clear message that Muslim girls who choose to wear the hijab don’t need permission to be a Muslim in public spaces,” Mohyuddin told CNN.
“We will keep chipping away at any policies that discriminate against our community. Najah is truly a trailblazer. I admire her courage and determination to stand up for her equitable access to sports throughout this process.”
The rule change will also impact student athletes of other religions, including Jews who wear kippahs and Sikhs who wear turbans.
Najah hopes her stand inspires student athletes of all faiths and backgrounds to continue advocating for equality in sports.
“If there is any message I could give to everyone out there in the world, don’t be afraid to follow your dreams,” Najah said. “Never be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.”