Anti-Muslim sentiment was one of the defining issues of the 2016 election, and now that the government is ruled by a heavily conservative majority, good news on that front can be hard to find. Enter Amaiya Zafar, the Muslim teen boxer who was recently granted a religious exemption to wear a hijab during matches — it may seem like a small victory for religious freedom, but every bit counts.
USA Boxing, the sport's national governing body, requires athletes to wear a "sleeveless athletic shirt" and loose shorts reaching about halfway down the thigh. As a devout Muslim, however, Zafar wears leggings and long sleeves to cover her limbs and a hijab under her headgear. Last November, the 16-year-old was disqualified from a national championship in Florida before the fight even began. According to officials, her clothing was a violation of uniform standards and a problem of safety, as referees would be unable to keep an eye on her arms and legs during the match. (After Zafar was disqualified, her opponent shared the victory with her as a gesture of support.) Since then, Zafar has fought for the right to compete in her chosen attire, even creating a website explaining her story.
"As a Muslimah, I cover my body to show self respect and my faith in God. So this, and the fact that there are few girls my age and weight for me to fight, are the main reasons I have yet to compete," she explains on her website.
Months after her disqualification and more than two years after taking up the sport in the first place, Zafar has finally tasted victory — just not in the ring (yet). In late April, USA Boxing granted Zafar a religious exemption, so she'll be able to compete wearing a hijab. The formal ruling is expected to go into effect this June. USA Boxing told NPR that it is reevaluating domestic competition rules to better accommodate athletes' religious preferences, and it will consider exemptions on a case by case basis. As NBC News points out, however, the accommodation doesn't negate the International Boxing Association's ban on hijabs.
According to her website, Zafar took up boxing several years ago after her father suggested she take up fencing. She joked that she'd rather get punched in the face than stabbed with a blade, and soon, she found herself learning to box at a local gym. Despite being banned from competing in a hijab until very recently, Zafar says she kept up her training in the face of adversity. "While most support me in this journey, some have opinions that they are eager to share, telling me I should take up baking or sewing rather than taking on a 'men's sport,'" she writes.
When she was disqualified last fall, then-executive director of USA Boxing told Minnesota Public Radio that Zafar's attire left referees unable to spot injuries during a match, adding that making exceptions for multiple religious groups could become complicated. "You have to draw the line somewhere," he told MPR.
Other sports have accommodated Muslim athletes without any problems. In the Rio Olympics last fall, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States, and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari wears both the hijab and costumes that cover her arms and legs. These are just some of the more famous examples; numerous athletes in other countries wear the hijab as well. In March, Nike announced the launch of a pull-on performance hijab for women athletes.
Not all sports allow athletes to wear hijabs — basketball requires documented evidence before players are granted an exemption from its ban on head coverings — but clearly, the clothing itself makes no difference in an athlete's abilities.
When she finally competes, years after she began contesting the hijab restriction, Zafar will join the growing ranks of Muslim athletes shattering stereotypes. Who knows? She might even be seen at the SummerOlympics one day — provided she's allowed to compete.