Just as we celebrated the release of Nike's new athletic line for Muslim women, "Pro Hijab," we see just how far we still have to go when it comes to religious acceptance in this country.
Je'Nan Hayes, a junior at Watkins Mill High School sat the last game of the season on the bench. Not because she didn't deserve to play, not because her grades made her ineligible, and not because she had fouled out.
Hayes was benched because she wore a hijab.
According to The Baltimore Sun, Hayes' coach Donita Adams couldn't even look at Hayes had the end of the bench.
"I had not yet told her that she wasn't allowed to play in the game because of her headscarf."
This year was Hayes' first season playing organized basketball. Before the game, the head official informed Adams of the rarely enforced rule which requires "documented evidence" that Hayes covers her head for religious reasons.
Hayes, who played the first 24 games of the season, warmed up with her teammates like normal and stood for that national anthem. Then she sat on the bench while the rest of her teammates, even the reserves with whom she normally plays, entered the court.
After the opposing team had won 51-36, Adams pulled Hayes to the side and explained that her hijab was the reason she didn't get to play. Hayes immediately broke down into tears.
Later, Hayes told The Sun, "I felt discriminated against, and I didn't feel good at all," Hayes said. "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."
After learning of the rule, Adams talked to the Watkins Mills Athletic Director to see if it could be reversed before tip off. It could not.
Technically, the referee interpretation of the rule was correct. But Andy Warner, the executive director of the MPSSAA, Maryland's governing body for high school athletics said, "The officials of the game there took a strict interpretation of the rule, instead of the spirit of the rule. Does this fundamentally alter the game? Does this create an inherent risk? Does it create a competitive advantage? It doesn't do any of those things, so why are we denying what would be approved if they were to put a simple request into the association?"
But Warner, Adams, Hayes and Carlitta Foster-Hayes, Je'Nan's mother, agree that the hijab shouldn't require documentation at all.
"It's almost like you're singling out different religions, you know?" Foster-Hayes said. "With the way the rule is, you have to take an extra step to play because you're Muslim."
Foster-Hayes and Warner are filing a formal rule change.
The MPSSAA and referees association have apologized to Hayes and her family. But the whole incident has inspired Hayes to fight for change.
"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. 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."
As for Hayes herself, when The Sun asked if the incident dissuaded her from participating next year, she had this to say.
"I know definitely next year I'm going to try out for basketball. It does not stop here."