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Taking the Field--Their Way

A sports camp in Pasadena shows Muslim girls that they can realize athletic dreams without sacrificing religious principles on modesty.


Jumana Abdul-Malik wanted to play ball--and wasn't about to let standards of modesty required by her Islamic faith stop her. At basketball tryouts for the Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, the 15-year-old wore a secure head covering over her hair. She donned a long-sleeved top and long pants under her basketball jersey and shorts.

She made the team after her coach consulted the rule book and found nothing prohibiting such attire. But in her debut season two years ago, she says, the referee took one look at her and thumbed her out. He ultimately relented after entreaties from her coach and teammates--and a note from her parents explaining that such dress was required by her religion.

Now Jumana is a starting center on her team, a role model for Muslim girls and a coach at what may be the only Muslim girls sports camp in the nation. The two-week camp, which ended Friday at Westridge, aims to build athletic skills, boost self-confidence and arrest what organizers say is a tendency for Muslim girls to drop out of sports once they reach adolescence.

Despite growing "girl power" in sports, thanks to new sports heroines and anti-discrimination laws, a 1996 surgeon general's report found that girls were twice as likely to be inactive as boys. According to the Journal of Sports Psychology, girls drop out of sports at a rate six times higher than boys. Among the reasons for the discrepancy, experts list still-unequal sports opportunities and still-lingering stereotypes that sports are somehow unfeminine.

Religiously observant Muslim girls face the added challenge of requirements for modest dress--which eliminate public appearances in swimsuits, shorts, visible sports bras and tank tops. Once girls reach puberty, many choose to cover their hair, legs and arms; the most conservative families insist that the clothing be baggy enough to obscure the figure.

Enter Semeen Issa, the Muslim Women's League and their dream to show girls they can successfully practice both Islam and sports.

'You Can Do Whatever You Want'

"One basic thing we try to get across here is that you can do whatever you want," said Issa, the vivacious camp director and lifelong athlete who is leading the program's third year. "Just because you wear a scarf, long sleeves and long pants, don't let it stop you."

That message seemed to reverberate loud and clear among the 30 girls, ages 7 to 16, who trooped out to tackle Tae Bo, volleyball, tennis, basketball and soccer at the Westridge camp. In one room, younger girls shrieked and squealed as they punched, kicked and did Tae Bo moves to the beat of Janet Jackson's "Go Deep." In the gymnasium, Jumana and fellow coach Samira Idroos gave older girls a primer on basketball--explaining free throws, layups and slam dunks--before breaking them into two lines for shooting and rebounding drills.

Campers included fourth-graders Chloe Arifin from Indonesia, and Marjon Momand--"my name means 'coral in the sea' in Arabic"--whose mother fled her native Afghanistan when the then-Soviet Union invaded the country. There was Noor Merza, 12, who was born in Saudi Arabia of Syrian parents and now lives in Glendale. There were girls of Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Indian and African ancestry--most of whom eagerly volunteered their opinions on sports, boys and Islam. (Islam, yes; boys, no; soccer, yes; volleyball, no).

The diverse mix of girls gave the camp a unanimous thumbs-up, saying they felt better about themselves, their faith and their skills.

"Usually I'm scared of the ball," said Chloe. "But since I've been here I'm not scared anymore."

Noor said the biggest factor holding her back from sports hasn't been the hijab head covering she wears. It's boys. At school, she said, she sometimes hangs back from sports at recess for fear of being laughed at by them. Not so at camp.

"Boys try to take over and make fun of you," Noor said. "Here, you're much more relaxed and not embarrassed if you make a mistake."

Noor, Jumana and others who cover their hair said they enjoyed the questions they get about the practice as a chance to educate people about Islam. At one recent USC basketball camp, Jumana said, a girl asked her whether it was true she was an Indian who worshiped the devil.

"I was so happy they asked me; if they hadn't, they would have thought everyone who wore a scarf worshiped the devil," Jumana said.

At the same time, some Muslims have questions about Western-style sports. Issa said one parent wanted to know what her intentions were. "Are you trying to prepare [the girls] for track-and-field and swimming, where they don't dress appropriately?" she said the father asked.

Her explanations about fostering confidence and healthful habits in girls--along with assurances that all campers and coaches are female--seemed to work; he agreed to send his daughter.

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