Tuesday was an important day for the Champlin Park High School girls tennis team. It was photo day, with a professional photographer set up on the courts to shoot individual and team photos. Practice was put on pause for the day and fun reigned.
As they waited their turn in front of the camera, the 65 athletes hung out with their teammates; laughing, chatting, playing with coach Luke Shaw’s dog Ollie. Sixty-one of the tennis players wore game uniforms: tank tops and shorts. Four of them were dressed a little differently: long sleeves, athletic pants and hijabs, which are head scarves worn by Muslim women.
They may not have all dressed the same, but the 65 Rebels tennis players had everything else imaginable in common, including their enjoyment of tennis. They talked, they sang, they danced.
“I like being with friends and hanging out. It’s a sport I enjoy,” said ninth-grader Alisha Remtulla. Junior Arshia Hussain added, “I like the sense of community it has. We all cheer for each other.”
Alisha and Arshia were wearing something new to this year’s uniforms for the Muslim players. Their hijabs included team logos: rackets and the words “Rebel Tennis.”
The team hijabs, created by the players with help from the coaches, are a source of pride for everyone.
“As a team, we’re trying to reflect the diversity of our school,” Shaw said. “We have a large team with 65 kids and each year it gets a little more diverse. By having these young Muslim women walking through the halls wearing their tennis gear, it’s showing other young Muslim women that there’s a place for them on our tennis team. We’re glad they’re willing to promote our team through team hijabs.”
Senior Fatema Nathu is the most experienced tennis player among the Muslim girls. She plays on the varsity squad while the others – Alisha, Arshia and sophomore Hanaan Yusuf (who wore a “Rebels Lacrosse Superfan” t-shirt -- play on lower-level teams. All four were born in the U.S.; their parents or grandparents came to this country from all over the world.
“I’ve played tennis on and off since I was 6,” Fatema said. “I love how it’s an individual sport and a team sport. You get to work with yourself but you’re also together as a team. You get the best of both worlds.”
Having Muslim athletes as teammates has been a positive for all the Champlin Park players.
“Throughout our school we’re very diverse,” said senior Stacy Smith. “Our team is kind of leading others.”
Adding team logos to the hijabs this year provided a boost to team pride.
Fatema said, “I feel like it’s a really big deal because as Muslim athletes no one really pays attention to us, you could say. We are recognized as other athletes but with the hijab you’re being included with the uniform and you feel welcome and a part of something.”
Arshia added, “I think it’s a big step up for our team as well as our school. We’re representing our school and our tennis team. It’s specific to us and I really like how it says ‘Rebel Tennis.’ ”
Arshia’s mother, Nausheena Hussain, said, “Last year she absolutely loved being on the tennis team. That team, it feels like family. In high school you want to fit in, you want to be accepted. And it’s hard when you don’t look like the dominant culture and you visibly stand out. The coaches have been really great.
“Can you just imagine the feeling of somebody caring about the way you incorporate your faith into your extracurricular activities? It gave them the feeling that they truly are family. The coaches are like second parents to these kids. I’m really thankful they were able to have these hijabs for the girls.”
The response to the logo hijabs from teammates, other teams and parents from other schools has been positive.
“When we got them, people were saying things like, ‘Oh, I love that and it’s so amazing that our team got those,’ ” Arshia said. “Playing at matches, your opponent will tell you that they really like your gear, too.”
Alishia said, “Even walking across to go somewhere, all the parents will be like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ They have you turn you head and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is so great that the school is doing this for you.’ ”
Shaw said the Muslim team members are all quiet, respectful kids and great teammates.
“It’s been very positive. The girls helped design (the logo hijabs) and get them done. We try to do our best to be inclusive and our hope is that the younger girls see it, come out and be a part of our team, too.”
The Rebels tennis players are happy to be examples for other Muslims who might be considering joining teams.
“It’s a great way to encourage other Muslim athletes, not just here but in other districts and hopefully soon around the world,” Fatema said. “So people aren’t afraid to come out of their bubble just because they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I wear hijab so I won’t be able to play.’ You can do whatever you want. The head scarf doesn’t restrict you from doing anything you want to do.”--To see a photo gallery from the Champlin Park tennis team, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 62
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2016-17: 2,117