Keeping the Faith
By BILL WARD
The Tampa Tribune
Published: March 27, 2008
TAMPA - The questions they are asked most often deal with how hot, uncomfortable or restricted they feel trying to compete wearing that much clothing. What some people don't always take time to ask is why, as female Muslims, they are competing in track and field.
For freshmen Briana Canty of Tampa Bay Tech and Zein Kattih of King, and Brandon junior Sabrina Alahmad, the answers aren't much different than most students in the sport.
True, as females who adhere to the teachings of Islam, they observe "hijab," requiring them to cover their heads and bodies. They also take part in prayer five times each day, which can sometimes conflict with practice or competition.
Apart from that, these young athletes appear to be typical teenagers. And, like most of them playing sports at that age, they're competing for fitness, friendship and, of course, a little fun.
"I just enjoy running, and my friend wanted me to come out," said Kattih, who attends King's International Baccalaureate program. "And now that I've come out, I've made even more friends."
That was evident when, shortly after her interview, Kattih received loud applause from several of her teammates.
Despite problems experienced by some female Muslim athletes elsewhere in the United States, Kattih, Canty and Alahmad say they have had no difficulties so far this track season. Yes, they get the occasional odd look, as well as people repeatedly asking them about their attire. But they all say they have not dealt with any rude comments from fans or fellow competitors.
In fact, Canty says she has received compliments.
"I think a lot of the girls I run against are surprised at what I can do," Canty said. "Some of them have come up to me and have said, 'Dang, we didn't think you could run fast.' I guess they think that for how I look, with what I'm wearing, that I couldn't possibly run fast."
It should be noted that not all Muslim women follow the same dress code. Interpretations of Islam can differ. Some believe women cannot reveal their faces. Others have little or no clothing restrictions. Kattih's father, Brandon physician Mazen Kattih, said he left the decision of what to wear up to his daughter.
"As long as she felt in her heart she was doing the right thing, I would be happy," Mazen Kattih said. "That is all I wanted."
Canty, Alahmad and Kattih dress similarly for training and meets - with a headscarf, a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt and baggy athletic pants or sweats. They all know each other from attending some of the same Tampa mosques, as well as from the track season.
They all say they are accustomed to the clothing and don't find it hot or restrictive. Canty, whose mother and father, Carla and Byron Canty, ran track in college at Boise State University, competes in numerous events. Among them are the hurdles and high jump - two events where one would imagine pants being a disadvantage.
"I think it's all in your mind," Briana Canty said. "I'm used to it. I don't really think about it anymore."
Like Kattih's parents, Briana's allowed her to decide to observe hijab. The same goes for Alahmad's parents.
"Ultimately, it's Briana's decision to wear what she wears," Carla Canty said. "She's of age, and if she wanted, she could not wear it."
Kattih is a distance runner for King, while Alahmad is a sprinter at Brandon. A move from the cosmopolitan San Francisco area late last fall to Brandon might seem like a big change, but Alahmad says it was an easy adjustment - and running track has helped.
"I just seemed to click here with a lot of people and made friends quickly," Alahmad said. "No one's ever bothered me about what I wear. I just get a lot of questions about it from people, and I don't mind explaining it. They're just curious."
Some female Muslim athletes, however, have experienced difficulties observing hijab. During the indoor track season this year, Juashaunna Kelly, a Muslim distance runner from a Washington, D.C., high school, found herself at the center of controversy for wearing a form-fitting "unitard."
In order to conform to the rules of her faith, Kelly wore the one-piece outfit under her standard track uniform. But meet officials said the tights did not conform to the rules of the National Federation of High School Associations, which sanctioned the meet. Those rules state that uniforms are required to be "a single-solid color and unadorned, except for a single school name or insignia no more than 2.25 inches."
Kelly's unitard was multicolored, and she was disqualified. Her mother claimed it was a case of religious discrimination because Juashaunna had been competing in the same type of uniform for three years, including the same meet last year. Meet officials said it was a simple case of a uniform rules violation, one that occurs on a regular basis to non-Muslim athletes. Nonetheless, the incident made national headlines and sparked a debate.
Closer to home, 15-year-old Iman Khalil of Spring Hill was not allowed to play a youth soccer match during a tournament in Palm Harbor when the referee ruled her headscarf was a potential danger to her and others on the field, as well as a uniform violation. The league stepped in and Khalil was allowed to play later in the tournament, but the incident created another highly publicized controversy involving a female Muslim athlete.
When she was 12, Canty was not allowed to play in an AAU basketball tournament by a referee when she would not remove her headscarf. She was later allowed to play when her mother appealed to AAU officials. The Council on American-Islamic Relations also intervened.
To avoid potential problems, TBT assistant track coach Anthony Triana says he and Coach Candace Anderson make it a point to inform other coaches and officials before a meet that their squad features a female Muslim athlete wearing a headscarf and pants.
Canty says she's not worried about potential run-ins about her clothing.
"Track is more of an individual thing, there isn't the same interaction with other athletes, and as long as I follow the uniform rules, there shouldn't be a problem," Canty said. "People will still have questions about what I wear and how I can run with this much clothing. I just explain to them what I can, then they'll see what I can do on the track."
Reporter Bill Ward can be reached at (813) 259-7456 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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