Harmless hijabs -- Boxer Amaiya Zafar fights for her right to outwardly express her religion

Courtesy of Amaiya Zafar

Amaiya Zafar, 16, knows that her religion, beliefs, and attire will never hinder her performance in the boxing ring.

Imagine it: You've fought long and hard to step into the ring. You've trained and mentally mapped your path to triumph. But, you forgot one thing -- your beliefs, your attire, and your religion are seen as a threat to your beloved sport.

Courtesy of Amaiya Zafar

L to R: Zafar, Aliyah Charbonier, Nicole Ocasio (fellow boxers) browse their winning belts.

This is the story of 16-year-old Amaiya Zafar. A Muslim teen from Oakdale, Minnesota, Zafar was introduced to the ring about two years ago, and she instantly fell in love with boxing. She quickly proved herself a worthy fighter. And in November, as she was ready to put her skills on display at the Sugar Bert Tournament in Kissimmee, Florida, USA Boxing notified Zafar that she would not be allowed to compete. She was disqualified for choosing to wear a hijab under her headgear, a shirt under her tank to cover her arms, and leggings under her shorts to cover her legs.  

Many women of the Muslim faith wear hijabs and full body coverings as a display of modesty. Zafar was merely embracing her religion, not undermining authority.

USA Boxing Executive Director Mike Martino explained to Minnesota Public Radio News: "There's a safety issue involved. If you're covering up arms, if you're covering up legs -- could there be pre-existing injury? And then if someone got hurt during the event, the referee wouldn't be able to see it."

Essentially, the hijab and her coverings are prohibited because they're potentially dangerous, according to the International Boxing Association (AIBA) and USA Boxing.

So as it stands, Zafar can't show the world how great of a boxer she is because she refuses to shed her coverings and the AIBA refuses to make an exception to its rules. Sadly, Zafar isn't alone.

Throughout the sports world, rules about attire prevent or discourage women of the Muslim faith from participating in competitions. In fact, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) and the International Swimming Federation (FINA) all have regulations that prevent or significantly limit Muslim athletes' ability to compete (though many of the regulations are evolving) if they desire to wear a hijab or cover their bodies.

The rationales surrounding the rules range from competitive edge to safety concerns. However, are there other ways to protect athletes and maintain competitive fairness without making women sacrifice parts of their identity to compete?

Zafar and her coach Nathaniel "Kidd" Haile seem to think so.

"I've found what works for me. My hijab and clothes are really breathable and I'm not slowed down in any way," Zafar says. And Haile, with more than 20 years of boxing experience under his belt, is certain that Zafar and others are completely safe if they fight while covered.

"I'd never put my fighter in harm's way. Doctors examine fighters prior to fights while they're uncovered," he added. "So they would notice any injury then. During the fights, athletes wear head gear and any injury sustained to the arm or leg [like a broken bone] would be clearly noticeable to the athlete and referee."

It's difficult to imagine how hijabs (now available in breathable, athletic materials) and shirts and tights worn by athletes every day could be a threat to anyone's safety, and many federations are disproving their own rationales.

FIBA recently completed a two-year trial period for allowing hijabs on the court, and not one caused an injury (or masked one either). FIVB made an exception per the 2016 Rio Olympics by allowing Egyptian volleyball player Doaa Elghobashy to compete while fully covered. And USA Swimming, a national federation under FINA, has a religious exemption that allows swimmers to wear alternative suits that don't give a competitive edge.

Courtesy of Amaiya Zafar

When Zafar was disqualified for wearing a hijab at the Sugar Bert Tournament, her opponent Aliyah Charbonier, 15, was declared the winner. However, Charbonier decided to share her belt with Zafar.

My assessment then is that despite each organization having policies against discrimination, the rules on competition attire are in fact discriminatory. The alleged concerns are either illegitimate or easy alternatives exist that overcome those concerns.

But, why do these rules continue to exist?

My best guess is politics. Across the globe, followers of the Muslim faith have come under scrutiny by misinformed people who associate the religion with terrorism. In fact, hate crimes against Muslims have surged quite noticeably. Many find outward displays of the religion threatening and unfamiliar. But as Zafar confidently explained, "Islam is a faith of peace." And that has been proven for thousands of years.

The same sports world that embraced Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before 9/11 must now embrace the women of the faith.

The solution

The AIBA, FIBA, FIVA and FINA should work to expand the opportunity for religious expression, growth and social change. For example, though fencing is a much different sport than boxing, Ibtihaj Muhammad -- a member of the U.S. fencing team -- became the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Rio Olympics.

So change is on the horizon.

Though there are concerns about health and competition when it comes to performing in a hijab, not one of those assumed issues is more important than growing women's sports and making them truly inclusive.

Cecelia Townes is a proud graduate of UCLA School of Law and the Real HU in Washington, D.C. She used to ball so hard on the tennis court. Now she serves it up on her blog, GladiatHers.com, and with student-athletes with Beyond the Game LLC. Follow Cecelia on Twitter & Instagram @SportyEsquire

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