Benched over head scarf, Mastery basketball player says ‘change is coming’

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Nasihah Thompson-King talks with reporters after a press conference at Mastery Shoemaker Charter School. Her supporters called for an end to the requirement that hijab-wearing students obtain a waiver after Nasihah was prevented from playing because she refused to take off her head covering.

Nasihah Thompson-King talks with reporters after a press conference at Mastery Shoemaker Charter School. Her supporters called for an end to the requirement that hijab-wearing students obtain a waiver after Nasihah was prevented from playing because she refused to take off her head covering. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia’s Muslim community is rallying around a student athlete after a basketball referee benched her for not having a signed waiver to wear a hijab during a playoff game last week.

Lawmakers and school district officials have also joined in to ask the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to get rid of the waiver requirement for religious garb for the city’s public school students.

“Our students’ rights, responsibilities and their individual freedom of religion must be protected at all times. Honoring religious freedoms should not be subject to the whims of individual officials,” said James Lynch, president of the Philadelphia Public League, in a letter to PIAA’s executive director.

PIAA, the governing body for high school and junior high school sports in the state, enacted the waiver policy 25 years ago. It’s tied to the group’s rules for uniforms and includes language about religious attire and medical gear.

The waiver has two stated goals — maintain student safety and ensure no athlete gains an unfair competitive advantage.

With a hijab, a religious head scarf often worn as a symbol of modesty, the concern centers on how it’s pinned — whether there are any sharp, exposed edges from a safety pin, for example.

Under the policy, a referee has the discretionary power to inspect a student’s hijab and decide it’s safe for a student to compete, with or without a waiver from the school.

“This isn’t about, by any means, prohibiting somebody to participate based on religious beliefs,” said Melissa Mertz, associate executive director of PIAA, in an interview.

Nasihah Thompson-King, a Mastery Shoemaker Charter School basketball player who was benched because she had not obtained a waiver to wear her hijab, looks into a room full of media representatives before a press conference at her school.
Nasihah Thompson-King, a Mastery Shoemaker Charter School basketball player who was benched because she had not obtained a waiver to wear her hijab, looks into a room full of media representatives before a press conference at her school. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

During a Friday press conference at Mastery Shoemaker Charter School in West Philadelphia, supporters of sophomore guard Nasihah Thompson-King balked at the policy, calling it a “tragedy” based on “prejudice.”

“Muslim students don’t need the PIAA’s permission to wear hijab. That’s already been provided by God almighty and, to a much lesser extent, the Constitutions of Pennsylvania and the United States of America,” said Sharif El-Mekki, Mastery’s principal.

“The hijab does not present any safety issue. It’s certainly not woven with any special materials giving the student’s special powers,” quipped Fatima Thompson, Nasihah’s mother.

Mertz said PIAA is open to discussing the policy and possibly changing it.

“We’re going to put it in front of our basketball steering committee, as well as our board of directors,” said Mertz. “Maybe we do need to change it. Maybe we need to modify it by sport.”

As her team prepares for Sunday’s city championship game, Nasihah said she’s hopeful that will happen.

“Change is coming and coming rapidly,” said Nasihah.

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