MORGANTOWN, W. V. — When I moved to this college town in the summer of 1975 as a 10-year-old Muslim immigrant girl from India, I found my stride doing something very simple: tackling the rolling hills outside our home on Cottonwood Street.
Each day, I logged my mile – running the same route, down Cottonwood, down Headlee, up Pineview, up Cottonwood – as religiously as I did my prayers. I subscribed to Runner’s World magazine and Boston Marathon winner Bill Rodgers became my hero. Every morning, I’d meditate upon the image of then-Bruce Jenner to put a kick in my step. Running 10ks and competing in cross country and girls’ track in middle school and high school made me a lifelong athlete.
In recent years, girls and women in sports have come under attack as a result of an aggressive, well-funded campaign to allow boys and men who identify as girls and women to compete in female sports, in the name of transgender rights. University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas, a male who competed in men’s swimming then last year started swimming on the women’s team after identifying as female, has most notoriously dominated women’s swimming after the NAACP allowed Thomas to compete in women’s swimming.
Too often, athletes, parents, and sports organizations who disagree with males in women’s sports have cowered or stayed silent in the face of this controversy because shaming naysayers as “transphobic” is a tactic of activists on this issue, just as “racist” and “Islamophobic” are weaponized to silence people on issues of race and religion.
But that is now finally changing. Earlier this week, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) voted to approve a new policy restricting most transgender athletes from competing in elite women’s aquatic competitions. Then on Wednesday, the International Rugby League ruled that transgender athletes cannot compete in women’s sports,
A mother in Australia, Katherine Deves, expressed relief, writing on Twitter: “I am relieved and delighted my daughter’s sport is now safe and fair at [the] elite level.”
On Thursday, the 50th anniversary of signing Title IX into law, a diverse team of athletes stood under the banner, “Our Bodies, Our Sports,” at Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, blocks from the White House, to stand together for protecting girls and women’s sports for – guess what – girls and women. The rally was supported by the Independent Women’s Network, where I’m a senior fellow in the practice of journalism and a parent advocate.
After much reflection, as a classic liberal and feminist, I am proud to have stood with the athletes and advocates speaking up for girls and women in sports. This is not just an issue any longer of conservatives.
Included among the advocates were lesbian rights activist Lauren Levey and women’s rights advocate Amanda Houdeschell, a leader at the Women’s Liberation Front, known as WoLF. I’ve created a Who’s Who on my Substack. These athletes are champions in their sports and now they are trailblazers in public policy. They include:
- University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gainers Barker, who competed against the University of Pennsylvania’s Lia Thomas. The NAACP mailed her an award after she tied Thomas in a race.
- Skateboarder Taylor Silverman has lost prize money due to being forced to compete against a transgender skateboarder.
- Southern Utah University cross-country runner Madisan Debos, who wrote earlier this year: “What I signed up for was running against similarly advantaged competitors — other women. What I have experienced, and seen repeated across the nation, is a different story, and it’s why I’m speaking out.”
- West Virginia University State University soccer player Lainey Armistead, who has advocated for my home state’s “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”
Former Democratic Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an original sponsor of the Protect Women’s Sports Act, says protecting girls’ and women’s sports is a “feminist issue that should be supported by anyone of either party who wants to increase opportunities for women and girls.”
Activists and politicians have just gone too far in laying claim to women’s and girls’ sports. I say this as someone who has faced death threats advocating for the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in Muslim countries, where in too many nations a person having anything but heterosexual sex within a marriage can be a crime punishable by death.
Long before I was a journalist or “senior” anything anywhere, I was just a girl running the Coliseum track in Morgantown. Athletics – specifically girls’ athletics – empowered me as a Muslim girl in West Virginia.
I still remember, as if it were yesterday, the call I got from a classmate named Jane, inviting me to join a relay team for our track meet at Suncrest Junior High School. As I passed the baton to Lynda McCroskey, I felt strong and empowered.
A cousin came one day and saw me running in shorts, and he told my father, “That is haram for her to show her legs.” Haram is the Arabic word for “illegal.”
Indeed, too often, girls in my religiously conservative Muslim communities aren’t allowed to bicycle or run as we near puberty for fear of breaking our hymen, or “maidenheads,” and “losing our virginity.” What’s more, our movement, the sun on our bare arms, or the wind in our hair can be deemed “haram.” In Pakistan, women have defied threats to run a road race.
My father, a firm believer in girls’ and women’s rights, ignored my cousin’s complaint. I continued running and competing against girls my age.
At Morgantown High School, I had to run against boys in cross country because it was 1978 when I was a high school freshman. My classmate, Kaye, and I didn’t have enough girls to make a girls’ team. I still remember a boy hobbling as if his knee was in pain right before I was about to pass him.
As hard as we trained, Kaye and I were only fast enough to qualify for the boys’ junior varsity team. It would take us four years on junior varsity to qualify to “letter” and get the much-coveted letterman’s jacket as a Morgantown High Mohican.
The cartilage in my right knee wore thin by my junior year when “Big Al,” the trainer, had me popping daily ibuprofen for the pain. I couldn’t run cross-country my senior year, alas, and never got my varsity letter. What I did get was a priceless, lifelong devotion to athletics.
It’s with much meditation that I now say we have to keep girls’ and women’s sports for those born female. As parent advocate Harry Jackson, a lacrosse and football referee and former Olympic-level athlete, suggests: sports federations can create open categories in which athletes born male and self-identifying as a female can compete. Or sports authorities can find some other solution. But having males compete with girls and women isn’t the answer.
My younger self is an empowered woman today because of what running the Coliseum track with girls as Jane and Kaye allowed me. As we find solutions to support transgender athletes, we should allow the same destiny for all young girls.