Observant Muslimah Samah Aidah, a high school student in Colorado, wears her hijab or head covering as a component of her religious faith wherever she goes in public, like many other Muslim women. Her scarf sits snugly over her hair when she’s in class, out with friends, or playing sports—and the young athlete is a member of her Overland High School’s soccer team, so she plays sports a lot.
Yet, when her team showed up for a match recently, the referees benched her, claiming that her hijab posed a safety risk, this despite FIFA’s recent ruling that athletes who need to wear head coverings for religious reasons are free to do so on the field as long as they match the team uniform. FIFA knew of which they spoke, as they’d conducted a pilot study to confirm that religious headgear including scarves and turbans posed no safety risk to athletes or teammates.
That could have been the end of it—yet another case of religious discrimination in the United States, a nation that claims to be post-racial and respectful of all religions when what it really means is that everyone politely ignores race and all religions are welcome so long as they’re moderate forms of Christianity. It could have flickered briefly in the local news, it might have been picked up by some Muslim organisations, but it likely would have been trapped there, without any forward momentum. However, here’s where the story changes: in the purple state of Colorado, where politics can swing wildly between conservative and progressive mores depending on where you are and what’s at hand, Aidah’s coaches and team members came out in support of her.
For their next game, the entire team and coaching staff also put on headscarves in an act of solidarity, and the social media-savvy Divine Davis Tweeted a group photo of the team, declaring: “the refs wouldn’t let Samah play with her hijab so today we all wore one for the game #lovemyteam#letsamahplay.” It worked; the team was allowed onto the field, and while they didn’t win, the members of the opposing team noted that they were impressed by the solidarity of the girls’ team and their determination to stand up for what was right, even if it might have meant forfeiting a match had they not been able to convince the referees to let them play.
Support didn’t just come from members of the opposing team: people around the world saw the Tweet, which went viral and spawned supportive responses from people across the globe along with thousands of likes and retweets. In an era when so much of what spreads across the internet can start to feel like manufactured outrage or a brief flash in the pan without any real substance, it shone as an instance of concrete protest with real-world implications and results. The spread of the image illustrated the power of social media, but also the force young women are exerting in the world through self-determination, the tools of the internet, and their own communities.
With young women facing so many pressures in the United States today, and Muslimahs facing even more, scores of ‘empowerment’ campaigns are trying to help women gain self-confidence and self-determination, but incidents like this can’t be credited entirely to the influence of supportive adults. It’s Aidah’s team who decided to express solidarity with her, in an homage to other acts of rebellion and support from teens in similar situations across the US for their oppressed peers. Whether it’s boys wearing dresses to support a gender nonconforming classmate or college students putting out pride flags to support a gay colleague, teens are embracing and supporting their peers instead of rejecting them, and young adults are empowering themselves rather than waiting for adults to do it. While adults struggle to create a culture of empowerment, young adults are carving one out for themselves and in the process, they’re lending courage and strength to their peers.
Aidah’s team saw an injustice and an easy way to remedy it, drawing upon a traditional protest method along the lines of “I am Spartacus” while also taking advantage of new media tools to ensure that the act of protest had to be addressed, even if officials might have been reluctant to take it on. Their solidarity didn’t just send a signal to Aidah that she was welcome on the team. It was also a larger message to the Muslim community as a whole that while intolerance might be part of the playbook for adults in the community, young adults felt differently, and wanted to work together to forge a world in which Muslims are seamlessly included in society.
Banning the headscarf from the field wasn’t just a gross violation of civil rights, an imposition of specific religious values on a young woman who wanted to play soccer with the rest of her team while still honouring her faith. It was also an expression of more generalised Islamophobic sentiments, a clear indicator of fear and hatred directed at the Muslim community by the refs—and Aidah’s team delivered quite the red card in response.
Even without the FIFA ruling to support the use of headscarves on the field, they had a solid case to support their teammate; would referees insist that a student wearing a cross take it off for fear she might be injured by it in a fall or foul? Unlikely, given how often I see crosses (and other necklaces, for that matter) peeping out of the uniforms of high school athletes. This was a ruling not concerned with safety, but with religion, one that singled out and alienated a Muslim student for openly expressing her religious faith and cultural identity.
And it became a case in which young adults took advantage of the system to firmly reinforce the fact that their teammate was a welcome, fully integrated, and valued member of their community, putting the adults around them to shame. For members of marginalised groups, such expressions of solidarity have incredible value, and not just when they result in a positive outcome, as in this case. They are also an affirmation of value, worth, and respect, sending a message to young women like Aidah that they deserve to be included precisely as they are, and there is nothing wrong with their religious or cultural identity.
This act of protest also sent a signal to other communities across the US, where undoubtedly Muslimah students have been similarly profiled, and perhaps didn’t face such great outcomes. Other teams and groups may take heart from the protest and stage their own versions, affirming the right of Muslim students and others who wear religious headcoverings to do so in school (and other) environments. As a grassroots protest, it arises from the core of a desire to respect and affirm the basic humanity of fellow students, and it paints the possibility of a world where solidarity beats out hatred.
Photo: “Colourful Hijabs” by Catriona Ward, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.