In the final game of the season, junior Je’Nan Hayes, a member of the Watkins Mill High School girls basketball team, was kept on the bench the entire time, even when the game was well out of reach and the rest of the reserves were sent onto the court.
That’s because right before the game, an official at the regional final informed Watkins Mill coach Donita Adams that Hayes would not be allowed to play because of her hijab — despite the fact that she played in every other game this season without issue. The official cited a “rarely enforced rule” that requires documented evidence for a player to wear head cover during a game for religious reasons.
Adams tried to get the officials’ decision overturned before the game, but was unable to do so. Hayes, who didn’t know the real reason she was kept on the bench until after the game, burst out into tears when she found out.
“I felt discriminated against and I didn’t feel good at all,” Hayes said, as reported by the Washington Post. “If it was some reason like my shirt wasn’t the right color or whatever, then I’d be like, ‘okay.’ But because of my religion it took it to a whole different level, and I just felt that it was not right at all.”
Andy Warner, executive director of Maryland’s governing body for high school athletics, told the Post that officials made the wrong decision benching Hayes.
“The officials of the game there took a strict interpretation of the rule, instead of the spirit of the rule,” he said.
But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is advocating for the rule to be changed completely, and is currently working with the MPSSA to do just that.
“There is obviously a need to update the existing policy so that athletes of all backgrounds may practice their faith without such unfortunate incidents occurring,” said CAIR Maryland Outreach Manager Dr. Zainab Chaudry. “Athletic officials should also undergo diversity training to ensure that they are aware of the religious needs of a diverse student population.”
This is a problem that goes well beyond Maryland high schools. FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, still doesn’t allow women to compete in FIBA-sanctioned tournaments while wearing a hijab. Recently, there has been a huge push from high-profile WNBA and Muslim athletes for that rule to finally be changed, and just this month, progress was signaled when Nike unveiled a line of performance hijabs.
But as the sports world attempts to take steps forward, it seems much of the rest of the world is going backwards. Islamophobia has been on the rise in the United States, and in Europe, a judge ruled on Tuesday that employers will be permitted to ban workers from wearing headscarves.
In this climate, Hayes, who says she plans to return to the basketball court for her senior season despite this incident, wants to keep fighting for inclusion and religious freedom.
“I just want to be an advocate for boys or girls, anybody who is trying out for a sport and has a religion and they feel like their faith can interfere with the way they play sports,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way. And because of rules like these, I feel like it makes people scared or turn away from sports, and I don’t want that to happen to anybody else in the future.”