CHICAGO (RNS) — Ayah Aldadah, a hijab-wearing Muslim athlete, never thought about how strange it was she had to get a uniform waiver to participate in track and cross country each year at school — until she didn’t have to anymore.
Now, with the Inclusive Athletic Attire Act in effect this school year in the Land of Lincoln, no other Illinois student athletes will have to jump the same hurdles she did in order to literally jump hurdles.
The Inclusive Athletic Attire Act allows all student athletes to modify their uniforms in keeping with their religion, culture or personal preferences for modesty. That means students no longer need to seek special permission to wear a hijab, undershirt or leggings with their uniforms — as long as it doesn’t cover their faces or interfere with their movement.
The legislation, which was sponsored by State Sen. Laura Murphy and State Rep. Will Guzzardi and passed the Illinois General Assembly with overwhelming support in May, was an initiative of the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, a partnership of activists, influencers and organizations that works on civic justice policies for underrepresented communities.
Murphy, who represents Chicago’s northwest suburbs, said she’s been told Illinois is the first state to pass such legislation.
“Sometimes legislation for women often lags behind, and we see that in so many areas, but that’s why it’s important to start to tackle these things as they come up,” she said.
When the Illinois Muslim Civic Association approached her about it, she said she realized that not only would it benefit the significant Muslim population in her district, but also that “all young girls can benefit from the opportunity to have more modest attire should they choose.”
Maaria Mozaffar, director of advocacy and policy for the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, said the issue was something that came up again and again in community conversations the coalition hosted across the state.
For some Muslim students who wear hijab, the process to get a waiver to participate in school sports was so complex they never took the opportunity to do so, according to Mozaffar. It kept students from the relationships and sense of belonging and experiences sports can provide, she added.
“We decided one of the major issues we want to address is making sure every child has an opportunity to participate in athletics, not just Muslims and people of faith, but people who would like to have the option of modesty or the option of physical comfort and not be restricted in doing so,” she said.
“This legislation really is a bill for all types of student athletes — boys and girls and (those with) cultural and religious restrictions and physical modifications as well.”
It’s an issue that has come up not just in schools, Mozaffar pointed out, but more recently at the Tokyo Olympics, where the German women’s gymnastics team chose to compete in full-body unitards and the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for wearing the same uniform as the men’s team instead of the mandated bikinis for female players.
Aldadah, now a senior at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, shared her story earlier this year with an Illinois House of Representatives committee.
Growing up near Peoria, Illinois, she’d wanted to play basketball in high school. Her love for running was “unexpected,” she said, but by her sophomore year, she realized she had the potential to make it to the collegiate level.
To get there, though, Aldadah had to get a waiver each year allowing her to wear her hijab, long sleeves and leggings with her school’s track uniform. Her coach carried the waiver in a binder to each competition, showing it to officials beforehand.
Aldadah didn’t realize how singled-out that made her feel, she said, until she got to college and no longer needed a waiver to participate.
“When I was moving from freshman in high school to senior year in high school, I slowly realized I was the only one modestly dressed, head to toe. Looking around, not seeing a lot of diversity — and not just in my sport, but all sport — I thought this bill would help so many athletes overcome that,” she said.
Both Mozaffar and Aldadah said their Muslim faith motivated them to advocate for student athletes.
For Mozaffar, faith is central to her work as a lawyer, and that includes fighting for the dignity of women and girls and believing everybody deserves the same opportunities.
For Aldadah, she said, “Everything that I go through in my life, I think of in the perspective of what my religion tells me to do, like morals and values and how I treat people and how I go throughout my daily life.” That includes how she approaches her sport.
Especially because she wears hijab, she said, she feels like a representative for her faith. She wants to help educate people not only about what it means to be Muslim, but also what it means to be a good athlete.
“I think we’re gonna see a lot more diversity in sport and modest clothing,” she said.