Sixteen-year-old Je’Nan Hayes has a new love: basketball. She practices everyday. Her cousins and uncles are players and she is the first in her family. As a varsity player in her Montgomery County high school basketball team, she played the first 24 games of the season without a problem.
Her mom would remind her to tuck her hijab with a few looks now and then.
Then on March 3, 2017, the motivated rookie never got off the bench at the semi-finals of the Regional High School Championship game in Oxon Hills, Md.
“I would have looked at the rules and expected the waiver does not make sense to you,” It is a note or letter to the state saying that a student is a Muslim that requires her to wear a hijab. There is no standard form. Reginald Spears, the athletic director, In the 9 years referees and he has never done a waiver for the school students.
“My coach had pulled me aside, and she had said that she was sorry that I couldn’t play. [T]here was a state rule saying that I have to have a letter to play with my hijab on,” said Hayes. Her coach Donita Adams, visibly disturbed at a press conference held by CAIR, said that they had never been informed of this rule and she needed clarification on that. Her team was really supportive- they think of me as a regular team mate and they were shocked and surprised. Her high Watkins Mills High School lost the championship.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) made the rule and is enforced at the state level, causing confusion. “I want to know why I need a waiver stating that I am an observer of a certain religion,” Hayes said. “Doesn’t my hijab do that?”
The extra attention from media made Hayes want to extend her advocacy beyond her own case to students from Jewish, Sikh and other faiths. “Religion should not be a barrier to sports,” says Hayes.
The case is reminiscent of basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a Commerce High School graduate, who set a new record for the state of Massachusetts, finishing with 3,070 career points in five varsity seasons.
“She made history by becoming the first NCAA Division-I athlete to play in a basketball game while wearing hijab — covering her arms and legs with long sleeves, with a headscarf to cover her hair,” shares Muslim sports writer, Amaar Abdul-Nasir, on the Ummah Sports. He explains that at college level hijab is allowed because “in 2004, University of South Florida forward Andrea Armstrong won the right to wear hijab after challenging a team rule prohibiting it, but she left the team before appearing in a game.”
“I’ve been dreaming to play pro my whole life, and little did I know that my hijab, the same thing that made me accomplish things that I’ve accomplished so far...was the same hijab that was going to prevent me from reaching my dream,” said Abdul-Qaadir at the ICNA convention in 2015. Her attire didn’t present an issue when she was in high school or college but started to once she began pursuing a pro career. FIBA, basketball's global governing body, states that "players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players” —this includes hijab.
Like many other Muslim women athletes, Hayes and Abdul Qadir wear a close-fitting hijab and cover while playing.
Hayes is not demotivated by this incident but says that she has a hunger to succeed and take her game far. She also wants to make sure that the rule is changed nationally.
“We want the assurance this will not happen again,” stated Chaudry.
“The governing bodies who make these rules just have to keep in mind they cannot discriminate against players because of their religious beliefs,” Chaudry said.
A Google search for sports hijabs reveals a list of companies selling headgear for Muslim women. Active Muslim women and athletes use brands such as Sukoon and Liawear Action, custom fitness apparel for modest women, to use during workouts and games. Recently, sports brands giant Nike launched a sports hijab line, which garnered applause but also generated concerns about the labor ethics in the Muslim community. “Lots of Muslim sisters around the world sell high quality athletic wear....see if you can find something you like in our community before you spend with Nike,” comments Malikah Karim. Hayes and her mom have been shopping for sport hijab. She won't be buying Nike by fabric that is wearable. Not the floating head some coverage in the front and back.
Back in Maryland, a statement released by Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association read that “unfortunately, the officials made a strict interpretation of the National Federation of State High Schools playing rules for basketball instead of the spirit of the rule designed to ensure safety and competitive fairness.” The association agreed that Haynes should not be stopped from playing and are working with the family to make sure it does not happen again.
The teen athlete's mother, Carlitta Foster-Hayes says that the family is working with advocacy organizations to add addendums for uniformed hijab for sports. Petitions by the Maryland Civic Coalition and Color of Change were delivered to NFHS to advocate for national change with support from Maryland state senators and representatives.