When 16-year-old Noor Abukaram from Sylvania participated in a cross country meet last October 19, she never imagined that her fastest 5k, at 22 minutes and 22 seconds, would not officially count. Officials disqualified Abukaram, a member of the Sylvania Northview’s girls cross country team, at the Division 1 Northwest District cross country meet in Findlay because of her hijab (which was made by a high profile sports clothing and equipment company).
The Ohio High School Athletic Association [OHHAA] requires a waiver be submitted before competitions if runners wear religious headwear, such as a hijab. Abukaram had no idea about this rule until after the Findlay competition, although she had participated in several competitions before with no issues.
No advance notice
Abukaram recalled the shocking moment when she found out she was disqualified: “They were checking my teammates and me as they usually do,” she remembers. “They made one of my teammates change her shorts because they did not match the rest of the team’s uniform, and immediately in the back of my head, all I could think about was ‘Oh shoot…they’re going to say something about what I’m wearing.’” But the teammate changed her shorts, nothing was said to Abukaram, and the meet continued as usual.
“I finished my race and gave my teammates hugs,” she said. “Overall, I was having a great day. I found out my team was going to regionals, and we were through the roof (with excitement). So, a couple teammates and me… went to see the placings of the race… and my name wasn’t on there.”
Abukaram thought it was a mistake and asked the other girls on her team why she wasn’t on the list. The girls were silent for a moment, then admitted, ‘They say you got disqualified’. “I didn’t immediately think anything of it,” Abukaram recalls. “I chuckled and asked, ‘Why?’ but [the other girls] were not laughing. One of the girls looked at me and said ‘because of your hijab.’”
Viral on social
A couple of days later, Abukaram’s cousin, Zobaida Falah, a local entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded CURE bars, posted Abukaram’s story on social media and it went viral.
“Zobaida has dealt closely with the media before, so when I decided to come out with my story, she was the first person I went to. She knows how to manage the crazy world of social media,” Abukaram said.
Abukaram received an outpouring of support from around the world, including from Rep. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and from her role model, Ibtihaj Muhammad, an American Muslim athlete who competed for the United States in the 2016 Olympics while wearing her hijab. Abukaram was featured in Teen Vogue, CNN, Huffington Post, Sports Illustrated and a number of international news outlets.
A whole community
“I love the positive feedback, and it validated how I am feeling because it took me a while to want to tell my story. It seems there are so many things going on in the world that people need to worry about,” she said. “But once I told my story, it wasn’t just me. There are plenty of other Muslim girls going through the same thing, and it opened my eyes to a whole new community.”
When asked how she deals with the negative comments and Islamophobic remarks, she said she doesn’t look at the hate comments.
OHHAA plans to modify the religious headwear waiver so disqualification can be avoided in the future. Abukaram believes that things would have been different if the officials had communicated with her before the race, as they did with her teammate with the shorts violation. “The official at the race did not seem to have the same respect for me as he did my teammate,” confesses Abukaram.
She has advice for athletes who may look or dress differently than others: “Don’t ever compromise a part of yourself to make the person next to you feel comfortable.”
Abukaram hopes the #LetNoorRun campaign creates dialogue and a platform for athletes to fight discrimination, with upcoming events planned in the Toledo area.
Q & A With Noor Abukaram
Who are your role models? Ibtihaj Muhammed, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Crystal Dunn.
What’s your favorite activity to do with your family? Play soccer, hike and go on road trips.
What is your favorite book? Tuesdays With Morrie.
Best Ramadan/Eid memory? Late night suhoor [pre-fast meal] adventures.
What’s your favorite way to spend “me” time? Playing soccer and running.
Describe your life in a word. Hectic.
What is your favorite place in the Toledo area? Downtown Sylvania.
Check out letnoorrun.com for more information.