Muslim Students Are Done With Asking Permission to Wear Hijab on the Basketball Court

Freedom fighting heroes come in all ages. At Mastery-Shoemaker, we have been blessed to have several students who lead and serve in their communities on a consistent basis—in small and huge ways.

Recently, one of our students made the brave and insightful decision to stand up by sitting down. Nasihah Thompson-King is a varsity basketball player. She is a Muslim and wears hijab. During the playoffs this past winter, Nasihah was told by the referee, Sandra Yost, to remove her scarf or she would not be able to play.

Nasihah had an important decision to make within a few short minutes. Our team was marching towards the championship. If she refused to remove her hijab, she wouldn’t be able to play. She didn’t want to let her teammates down. But, Nasihah also knew what religious freedom meant and chose to take a stance against religious intolerance and cultural bias.

She sat out of the game.

As a principal and a Muslim, I was furious when I found out about this. But, no fury could mask my pride in this scholar athlete. I told Nasihah her bravery set an example for her peers and adults alike. She had the community’s (Muslim and non-Muslim) full support and we vowed to rally behind her.

Although, initially, the governing body of Pennsylvania athletics, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), insisted the rules were just and for safety, Nasihah used her platform as a varsity athlete to highlight the inconsistencies in the rules, and its application.

Nasihah pointed out that she had been playing all season and for multiple years, and only one referee found issue with her hijab.

Nasihah is a 16-years old sophomore. She could have easily remained silent and took off her scarf. She could have signed a waiver asking the PIAA for permission to be Muslim on the basketball court. Instead, she chose activism.

“I don’t think the issue is behind me,” Nasihah said, when asked about the waiver. “I still want the PIAA to change and get rid of the waiver. It’s completely unnecessary for us to have a waiver to cover up and they should terminate it.”

And with her resolve came support. #WeStandWithNasihah and #HijabiBallers were two of the hashtags that highlighted the issue.

Nasihah engaged our community: activists, politicians, including the entire PA Legislative Black Caucus, and School District of Philadelphia officials, including Superintendent Dr. Hite. They all voiced their concerns about the rule and their support for Nasihah.

Nasihah vowed, “Change is coming and coming rapidly.”

She was right.

Two weeks ago, the PIAA voted in two consecutive meetings to change the rulebook. Muslim students are no longer being required to ask for permission to be Muslim on the basketball court.

“Our students’ rights, responsibilities, and their individual freedom of religion must be protected at all times. Honoring religious freedoms should not be subject to the whims of individual officials,” said James Lynch, president of the Philadelphia Public League.

I want to thank everyone who stood by Nasihah’s side and supported the school-to-activism pipeline that should undergird our work to develop citizens. Nasihah’s bravery highlighted what can happen when families, schools, politicians, and other policy makers come together to demand justice.

These types of coalitions can ensure that the change Nasihah predicted continues to come. #PamojaTutashinda

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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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