Recently, Maryland seventh-grader Maheen Haq was forced to sit out during the first half of her basketball game, after league officials cited concerns over her hijab as a safety hazard.
She was eventually allowed to play in the second half, after her parents explained that she was covered for religious reasons, and that they would take full responsibility for any injuries that she might sustain as a result of wearing it. According to Jim Shannon, former coordinator of the league, the official citing concerns about Haq was worried about the potential for neck injury.
This isn't the first time such a thing has happened. In 2007, an 11 year -old girl was prevented from playing in an indoor soccer tournament in Quebec for similar reasons. The referee told Asmahan Mansour that her hijab was a safety hazard, and thus she wouldn't be allowed to play while wearing it.
I spent my awkward middle school years at an Islamic school, where my classmates and I preferred to wear loose and large hijabs, fastened with a safety pin at the neck as a part of our school uniforms. Potential hazards of playing sports in hijab were not to be trivialized. I regularly found ways to trap my long hijab in doors and furniture. In the hormonal hellhole that is an all-girls gym class, the hijabs that we wore were regularly used in catty warfare, caused us to overheat in an ever-sweltering North Carolina climate and sometimes prevented us from playing sports properly. Our problem wasn't covering, but rather how we were doing it. And identifying the hijab as a hazard is not the question; it can present safety problems when not worn properly during sports. But the real frustration lies in how it is addressed.
Identifying the hijab as a hazard is not an issue, but frustration lies in how it is addressed. At local skating rinks in my hometown, my friends in hijab were regularly kept from skating without a helmet, yet I was still allowed to skate in my obstructive JNCO jeans, showing that safety standards were not only being violated by religion, but also by other changing factors, like fashion. However, in these conversations the hijab as a hazard was the bottom line, rather than a point to initiate discussion. I think this is a large part of the problem.
Most safety-related problems can be easily remedied by finding the appropriate style for a particular activity. There are many different styles of hijab available, especially in recent years, including those that are more suitable for the needs of athletes. A Dutch woman named Cindy van den Bremen developed the "Capster", which fits snugly around the head, allowing a woman to remain covered while staying cool and safe. While ideal for athletic use, many non-sports related companies and organisations have approached Cindy to help create hijabs conforming to their respective health and safety policies. It would be easy to incorporate into any uniform.
Much like the Capster, there are other (cheaper) ways to help ease concerns over safety. After one too many incidents involving aggressively pulling each other's hijabs during games of flag football, our school made a smaller version of the Amira-style hijab a part of our gym uniform. Much like the Capster, it snugly fits around the head, and is not fastened with a safety pin. While not as flattering as the Capster, it would not hurt if ripped off, and it does not interfere with athletic performance. Similarly, there are also ‘tear away' options. This is a problem easily solved, but only with willingness to research and dialogue.
While there are some pretty accessible solutions out there, the point is that none of them can be used unless administrators are open to them. It is important for the league to focus on the best and safest way to keep Haq playing basketball, rather than focus on shying away from controversy. It is important to have conversations about ways that organizations can include young Muslim female athletes AND keep them safe. To focus on a choice between covering and sports may prevent these young women from playing at all. I had many peers that felt excluded from trying out for sports teams because of stringent uniform requirements, including non-Muslims. Surely, both comfort and safety would be central components to maximizing the benefits of team sports. I hope that these solutions are involved in the conversation between league leaders and Haq's parents.