Deering High sophomore Tabarek Kadhim wasn’t entirely comfortable about playing sports – but that’s changed now that the school is offering sports hijabs for female Muslim athletes.

“I did not do any tennis until now because I was so nervous and shy about wearing my stylish hijab during an athletic event,” said Kadhim, clad in a slick purple cap that matched her uniform and covered her hair, ears and neck. “Now I can actually play and not worry about my hijab falling off.”

This spring, Deering apparently became the first school in the nation to outfit athletes with hijabs designed for physical activity – a move athletic director Melanie Craig hopes will encourage more Muslim girls to play sports.

Athletes have long struggled to compete in their traditional hijabs – the headscarves worn in public by many Muslim girls and women to reflect devotion to their faith. Traditional headscarves are often thick and prone to unraveling, but sports hijabs are made from lightweight, sweat-wicking mesh and designed to pull on rather than wrap around to stay in place.

“You often see them flipping a scarf over their shoulder while they’re trying to get the ball,” Craig said of traditional hijabs. “We pride ourselves in celebrating our diversity, but this has really been a challenge for my female Muslim student-athletes.”

Hijabi athletes are now being recognized on the largest of stages. Last summer, Ibtihaj Muhammad – a saber fencer from New Jersey – became the first American to compete at the Olympic Games while wearing a hijab, earning a bronze medal. Earlier this month, the International Basketball Federation, or FIBA, overturned a ban on religious headgear. FIFA, the international soccer organization, lifted its ban on head coverings in 2014.

“If I’m going to buy a football helmet,” Craig said, “I’m going to buy a hijab.”

The sports hijabs also are helping to foster a greater sense of inclusivity in a social climate where Muslims have been targeted. There was a 44 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in America from 2015 to 2016, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations – the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.

Deering lacrosse player Sulwan Ahmed said teachers and administrators have started taking extra steps this year to make sure Muslim students feel “safe, secure and valued.

“I feel like, within the Muslim community and communities of color, we weren’t really heard before. Now our teachers are listening to us. Deering is actually taking in what we’re saying and taking action.”

Tabarek Kadhim, a tennis player at Deering, welcomes the athletic hijabs offered by the school for its female Muslim athletes. “Now I can actually play and not worry about my hijab falling off,” she says. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

‘THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE’

Deering is part of the Portland Public Schools district – the most diverse in Maine. About one-third of the district’s students speak a primary language other than English. However, the number of Muslim students who attend Deering is unknown. Portland Public Schools does not collect data on student religious beliefs, nor does the Maine Department of Education.

Reza Jalali, a professor at the University of Southern Maine, estimates that there are about 8,000 Muslims in Maine. He called Deering’s sports hijabs a “milestone” and “testimony to the changing landscape in Maine” – the country’s whitest state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ten of the sports hijabs are in use by Deering athletes involved in tennis, lacrosse and track. They will be issued at the beginning of every season and collected afterward, as with any other uniform. Athletes have the option of choosing among black, white and purple – Deering’s school colors. Craig said she hopes to eventually customize the hijabs with the letter “D.”

“There was just this excitement and energy and just these big smiles,” Craig said of her Muslim athletes’ reaction to the hijabs. “It’s recognition of who they are.”

Fadumo Adan, a junior who plays lacrosse at Deering High School in Portland, wears the new sports hijab provided by the school, which is part of the most diverse school district in Maine. The number of Muslim students at Deering, however, is unknown because data on religious affiliations is not collected. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Craig purchased 25 sports hijabs for $45 apiece from ASIYA – a Minnesota company that specializes in modest active wear. While Nike has unveiled plans to release an athletic hijab next spring, ASIYA remains the only one in the United States to offer the product, which became available for purchase in March.

“They (Deering) are the first school in the U.S. to have ordered hijabs from us on behalf of their athletes,” ASIYA co-founder Jamie Glover said. “For us, that’s super exciting because we do see this as just another part of the uniform – another piece of equipment that we feel athletes need to be able to play.”

Nike’s promotion of its upcoming Pro Hijab brought the topic to light at Deering. After spotting an ad for the product, girls’ tennis co-captains Liva Pierce and Anaise Manikunda created a GoFundMe campaign to help Deering buy sports hijabs. They shared the link on social media and quickly raised $425 – almost doubling their original goal of $250. Craig said the rest of the money for the hijabs – about $700 – came from an anonymous donation.

Neither Pierce nor Manikunda is Muslim, but three of their teammates wear hijabs. One of them is Kadhim, who moved to the United States from Jordan four years ago. She said her sports-loving family shared her excitement, and her surprise, over the sports hijabs.

“I feel so happy and glad that we’re a diverse and inclusive team and that they actually care about me,” Kadhim said. “At first, I felt like they did not care about me and, actually, they did. I love my team.”

‘THIS IS MY CHOICE’

Pierce smiled while recalling the sight of her Muslim teammates opening the box of the new sports hijabs.

“I just see a new confidence in them on the court,” Pierce said. “The more you can do to make everyone at your school feel comfortable, the better. If a Muslim student didn’t want to play tennis because she couldn’t be true to her religion and play the sport, that’s awful. I don’t want that to happen – I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.”

Ahmed said as a child she was one of the few Muslim girls on the basketball court.

“They were like, ‘I’d love to do basketball, but the problem is with the hijab,’ ” Ahmed said. “Their parents think they’re just going to take it off because it’s so hard to wear when you’re actually playing.”

Kadhim – who also competes in indoor track – said she would sometimes slow down during races when her headscarf began to slip.

One of the most common questions hijabi athletes get is, “Why don’t you just take it off?” to which Kadhim will respond: “Because this is my choice. I do anything I want as a Muslim woman. If I want to play a sport, I’ll play a sport.”

Many Muslim girls and women choose not to don headscarves. Deering basketball player Amren Doale said she only started wearing a hijab last year after her father died because he had always wanted her to wear one.

“I wear it for him,” Doale said. “It’s what represents you – it’s saying ‘I’m Muslim.’ You should be proud of your religion.”

Ahmed also wears the hijab to feel connected to her family and faith – a choice she made in seventh grade. She said she immediately noticed a difference in her encounters with strangers, who sometimes shoot her dirty looks or make disparaging comments.

“What I see in the media is not me – it’s not an actual representation of most Muslim people,” Ahmed said. “To help those who are struggling – that’s what my religion teaches me to do. It’s talked about in school, but I just want my community to understand that.”