The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” These words were exemplified in the days following the passing of Justice Ginsburg by the actions of a ninth-grade volleyball player in Nashville, Tennessee.
Najah Aqeel made national headlines in September of 2020 when she was disqualified from a high school volleyball match for not receiving permission from the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) to wear her hijab during competition.
NFHS Volleyball Rule 4-1-6 states: “Hair devices made of soft material and no more than 3 inches wide may be worn in the hair or on the head…” By rule, athletes wanting to compete wearing any headwear that exceeds 3 inches in width need state association approval. While the rule was applied correctly, the unintended consequence was the humiliation and confusion it caused Aqeel and her family.
“It just felt weird,” Najah Aqeel said. “It felt like it wasn’t real, because I’ve never had an issue with my hijab and for someone to call it out it just confused me, and it took me by surprise.”
As the news of the necessary waiver traveled from coach to player to family, the bewilderment also spread. The Aqeel family was unaware that a waiver was necessary for Najah to compete.
“No one knew about a letter,” Aliya Aqeel, Najah’s mother, said. “We had no idea, neither did the coaches. No one knew, but she had already played in a game prior to this one and no one said anything to us about it at that game.”
Without the letter from the TSSAA, Najah could not compete in her hijab.
Najah, like many other Muslim women, wears the hijab (a scarf or veil) in the company of males outside of her immediate family to conform to the Islamic standards of modesty.
“Our religion is basically about humbleness and modesty and not just for women, but men as well,” Aliya said. “So as Muslim women, we choose to cover our hair and every part of our body basically for modesty.”
Volleyball uniforms are not typically designed for modesty, which was Najah’s first fight in her battle to play volleyball. Her father reluctantly allowed Najah to play – with a caveat.
“When I went into middle school, our family friend, Akilah King, was the volleyball coach at Lavergne Middle School and had been begging me to play for a long time,” Najah said. “My dad was so hesitant because of the uniforms, but he finally let me play. I had to wear leggings.” When Najah began her freshman year at Valor Collegiate Academy in the fall of 2020, she knew she wanted to play volleyball but had no idea her soft voice would lead to national change.
That voice found welcoming ears and open hearts and became amplified when the TSSAA, the NFHS and others began to join Najah in her fight. Within days, national organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); hijab manufacturer, Haute Hijab; the NFHS; founder and CEO of Valor Collegiate, Todd Dickson; and the Aqeel family began exchanging dialogue to educate and inform and ultimately change the expectation that certain student-athletes must jump through an extra hoop just to play.
“My goal was to get people to know that this was an actual rule and that it actually happened, because I’ve heard of people having to be disqualified from games before, but I just didn’t know that it would happen to me. So, my goal was to get it out there that it needs to be changed and it needs to be a serious thought,” Najah said.
While the TSSAA worked to address the policy at the state level, the NFHS worked to address the rule at the national level. In October, the NFHS Board of Directors approved a proposal for each NFHS sport rules committee to consider that would allow for the wearing of religious headwear without state association approval.
Volleyball was the first sport rules committee to meet in 2021, and last month, the NFHS Volleyball Rules Committee voted to approve the rule proposal.
“For the committee that was pretty much a no-brainer,” said Jo Auch, committee chair. “Our goal is always to have our athletes be able to participate as long as there isn’t a safety concern involved, so it made perfect sense to relax that rule and remove the requirement for the states to authorize the wearing of religious headwear.”
Similar policies were changing around the country at the state level.
“When I first found out it was changed at the state level, I was so happy and when you told us just now – I had a feeling it was going to be passed – I just felt so humbled and I felt relaxed and like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders,” Najah said.
“I feel the same way,” Aliya said. “I feel like weight has been lifted off our entire family and we can actually have all of the lawyers stop calling us. It has been overwhelming. We never wanted anyone to feel like we are pursuing this for any type of – I don’t know what word I’m looking for – but it was strictly just to have awareness brought to everyone and to give every young lady or gentleman the opportunity to play a sport that they love or even just try it.”
Najah was not the first athlete to have to go through the confusion and embarrassment of being singled out for practicing her religion, but her ability to bring leaders to the table has created a ripple effect of change.
“Najah and her family have been gracious and patient throughout the significant process; from discovery, to listening to one another, to learning and ultimately to decision-making at the state and national levels,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “Najah’s perspective, maturity and ability to communicate define her as a model for young people everywhere. We hope that her situation serves as a reminder of the beautiful fabric of diversity that exists in our schools and society overall.”
The Aqeel family has been supported by the entire Valor community throughout it all and the athletic director, Cameron Hill, shares in the pride for Najah’s maturity and leadership.
“The news of the rule change is great news for high school athletics in the country,” Hill said. “Najah showed so much courage to take the stand against this rule, and she exemplifies the integrity and character we encourage our student-athletes to display at all times. She has handled this process with class and dignity. She also maintained a 3.8 grade-point average in the midst of these events and went on to finish her volleyball season.”
Najah, like Justice Ginsburg suggested, led in a way that encouraged everyone to follow. Her grace, patience and humility incited a movement for change that she understands is so much bigger than herself.
“I feel like my eyes have opened even more and like I see things different in the world and I feel like things can be changed,” Najah said. “I hope that others have learned to stand up for what they believe in and to fight for what they think is right and what they feel – respectfully of course.”
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.