Most Twin Cities high school cross country and track teams have Somali students on the roster. Some of these prep runners have gone on to successful college and even professional running careers, like former Minneapolis South runner Hassan Mead, who represented the U.S. at the Rio Olympics.
Well, the boys’ teams have Somalis, anyway. There aren’t many Somali girls on high school cross country and track teams, or in high school sports in general, and they’re even rarer in college athletics, the professional ranks, and among the runners and cyclists circling the Minneapolis lakes. Why is that?
The unlikely coaching duo of Muna Mohamed and Jennifer Weber can help explain the dearth of Somali girls and women in sports in the Twin Cities, and how that’s changing.
Mohamed is the ultimate insider—born in Minneapolis to what she described as a fairly conservative Muslim family, she covers her hair, speaks Somali, and knows the community elders. Jennifer Weber is an outsider—white, not Muslim, doesn’t speak the language, a grandmother with deep roots in Minnesota. She’s a staunch supporter of girls’ sports.
In 2010, an administrator at the Cedar Riverside Community School, where Weber worked had a great idea, one of many great ideas that chronically underfunded, overcrowded public schools produce: “We need basketball,” the administrator said. The pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students were bouncing off the walls with excess energy. The school had almost no space for physical activity, and no budget to pay a coach, which is to say, this shrewd administrator had pitched the right candidate. Weber had coached girls’ travel basketball for 20 years before quitting to go back to college in her 40s. She was still completing her college degree at the time.
“At first it was just going to be sixth through eighth grade boys,” Weber said. “The administrator said I didn’t have to worry about girls because they wouldn’t be interested, and he didn’t think their parents would allow them to play anyway. I said, ‘We’ll see.’”
In 2012, in the same largely Somali Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, college student Muna Mohamed was tutoring kids after school. “There was a time for basketball in the gym but the coach was a Somali man,” Mohamed said. “I felt like he would encourage boys to play sports and girls to go cook, so I started coaching some girls.”
Chelsey Thul has studied exercise participation rates for a decade. In 2014, she led a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health in the first-ever quantitative study of physical activity participation among Somali adolescents. They compared physical activity rates among Somali, other black, and white boys and girls in the Twin Cities, and found Somali girls had the lowest physical activity levels of all, less than other girls and almost half that of Somali boys.
As a grad student in 2007, Thul had asked a group of older teenage Somali and Ethiopian women in the Twin Cities what prevented them from participating in sports, and what would make it easier to do so. “Two things came out of that study,” she said. “They wanted to be active but also covered, and most importantly, they needed a female-only space in which to be active. They did not feel comfortable being active in the gaze of men.”
Somalis are nearly all Muslim. To adhere to Islamic commandments of modesty, most Somali girls and women cover their hair while outside the home, and many wear a loose hijab that also covers their neck and shoulders, along with a flowing top and long skirt. Surprisingly, the young women interviewed didn’t find the extra clothing to be much of a stumbling block—it was more a matter of finding a sport-friendly hijab—but the female-only space was very important to them, and difficult to find.
The need for female-only spaces rules out basically all outdoor sports, activities like running, biking, swimming, and skiing. But as ironclad as those requirements seemed to be, neither covering nor gender-separate sports facilities had always been part of Somali culture, nor did they seem to be universally adhered to. I knew of a woman who played on the Somali national basketball team in the 1980s wearing just shorts and a t-shirt, and Somali girls—not many, mind you—who played soccer and basketball here in St. Paul in mixed-gender rec leagues and high schools.
“There’s a lot of variation in how culture is interpreted,” Thul said. “Not everyone in the Somali community thinks women and girls should be active. My goal is to provide opportunities for all girls and women to be active, and the best possibility of that happening is to provide culturally appropriate athletic wear and a women’s-only space.”
This winter, I attended a practice of the Cedar Riverside Community girls’ traveling basketball team, an outgrowth of girls’ programs Thul and others established more than seven years ago. Jennifer Weber was running the session. I was surprised to find about 20 boys and girls, not only in the gym at the same time, but playing coed three-on-three. Four girls wore headscarves, and one whose scarf kept coming untied took it off and tossed it to the side. Most girls wore t-shirts and sweatpants, basketball shorts, or a shorts-tights combo on the bottom. Girls and boys laughed and bantered as they moved from three-on-three to other drills.
When Coach Weber—she can’t remember the last time someone called her Jennifer—blew the whistle to end practice, the girls went to the bleachers and wrapped headscarves and pulled on long skirts for the walk home. Weber explained that the boys were managers for the girls’ team, and the girls were managers for the boys’ team. They treated each other as family, and some were in fact siblings. With the girls’ approval, Weber instituted coed practices to elevate their level of play. At any rate, she wanted to make sure I understood what I’d witnessed—some girls not wearing hijabs, boys and girls playing together—was anomalous. Weber said when the girls travel to away games where there will be unfamiliar boys and men, they cover their hair and wear any combination of clothing, up to and including a tunic over shorts, tights, and long sleeves.
The traveling team was an opportunity for the mostly Somali girls in the neighborhood who wanted to play at a more competitive level than the girls-only and rec league programs Weber and Mohamed also offered. Mixed-gender spaces are an unavoidable reality when playing other traveling teams, but not a dealbreaker for these girls and their parents, as long as they covered.
Thul, Weber, and Mohamed were excited about the unprecedented opportunity the traveling team represented, while simultaneously worried it might be seen as undermining Somali culture. Participating in sports provides obvious benefits—boosting physical and mental health, improving self-esteem, encouraging diverse positive social interactions—but is seen by some in the Twin Cities Somali community as being fundamentally incompatible with girls’ cultural and religious obligations. The issue is enormously complex, at the emotionally-charged nexus between Somalis and other Twin Cities residents; between first- and second-generation Somalis; between men and women; between culture and religion; between tradition and assimilation.
Fartun Osman, a St. Paul coach, phys ed teacher, and advocate for Somali girls’ sports, grew up in Mogadishu in the 1980s. She described a happy, carefree childhood. “We played street ball—boys, girls, whatever. We were raised by the community; everyone shared everything, everyone got along.” At 14, she played on the Somali national basketball team and ran track, 400 meters. Osman, like other Somali women at that time, didn’t cover her hair, and played in shorts and a t-shirt, athletic wear typical around the world.
“The school didn’t allow head covering,” said Osman, referring to the enforced secularism of the communist government in Somalia at the time. Though she was passionate about sports, she says she now sees her days of playing basketball without covering not as freedom, but as ignorance. “I wish I had that when I was growing up, I wish I had known more about my religion. But if you go to school, you have to play by their rules.”
In the late 1980s, Somalia’s government grew increasingly repressive, and violence spread between the rebels and the government, and between tribes. The government collapsed completely in Jan. 1991, and all told over 300,000 Somalis died from famine or violence. Millions more fled the country. Osman, then 15, and her infant son were separated from her husband when they fled, first to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. She arrived in the United States in 1994.
After 1991, Somalia descended into a still-ongoing civil war among brutal warlords, proto-terrorist organizations, and various foreign coalitions. Some Somalis in the country and those in exile turned to Islamic groups to provide some semblance of law and order. While more restrictive toward women, conservative Islam provided more stability than violent warlords. Schools and mosques sprung up in refugee camps—many funded by Sudan and Saudi Arabia—teaching a conservative brand of Islam, including covering and the idea that women should not be active in view of men.
I first phoned Osman out of the blue, and may have caught her off guard. When I asked why she covered now, as she didn’t when living in Somalia, she told me that the more conservative Somalis had also immigrated to the U.S., implying that she had to live by the rules of the Somali community here in St. Paul. Later, during our scheduled face-to-face interview, Osman said she chose to cover after she married and did not feel pressured to do so. “It’s out of respect for the religion,” she said. “No one is forcing you.”
Fadumo Mohamed fled Somalia with her family when she was just four, and spent 15 years in Kenya waiting for a visa to enter the U.S. “Sports are not part of Somali culture because in an Islamic country, there has to be a women’s tennis court or basketball court,” she told me. “Growing up in Kenya, I loved soccer. When I was 8 or 9, playing soccer with the neighborhood boys, my mom said, ‘Look at you. Shame on you for playing with boys.’ I had to stop.” She described having to wear an enveloping, burqa-like school uniform that made moving difficult, and staying inside during PE because the boys were allowed to play on the only field.
Mohamed also saw not covering as a matter of religious ignorance rather than freedom. “My grandmas were not religious,” she told me. “They couldn’t read Arabic; in fact, few could read and write at all. Everything was limited to what someone told them the religion was. As the country developed, they sent a few scholars to Islamic countries to learn about Islam. But in the late 1980s, Islamic knowledge was not welcome. The government was communist. Islamic scholars were killed for saying women should be covering up. In my grandma’s time, women didn’t cover because they didn’t know the religion.”
“There is nothing in Islam that prohibits participation in physical activity, by men or women,” said Asad Zaman, Imam and Executive Director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota. Both men and women are encouraged to maintain a healthy mind and body, and physical activity is one way to accomplish that. Some Muslim scholars, he added, question the validity of professional sports because the lifestyle focuses on entertainment, often at the expense of the health of the athlete.
Zaman says Islam requires modesty—of thought, behavior, and attire—which is where rules diverge rather sharply for men and women, both in what is written and how it is interpreted culturally. “What constitutes modesty differs for a man and a woman, based on biology,” Zaman said. “According to Islam, men need to cover the region between navel and knee; women need to cover everything except face, hands, and feet.”
While Zaman said there was some scholarly discussion of whether, for example, men’s soccer shorts needed to come to the top of the knee or cover the knee to be considered fully compliant, there was no hedging about the vast swaths of women’s bodies that needed to be covered, including many areas that aren’t biologically different from men’s—calves, elbows, shoulders, backs, necks, hair.
There are other double standards. Though the men’s navel-to-knee modesty zone isn’t physically difficult to comply with, nearly every male Muslim runner—from high school competitors to Olympians like Somali-born Mo Farah—wear shorts that end mid-thigh, at lowest. This “immodest” dress does not stop them from participating, and the fact that they dress like everyone else on the team, stay cooler, and move more freely, probably facilitates their participation in the sport.
“Men are in violation of sitr (modesty requirements) in large numbers,” Zaman said, “but society has chosen not to focus on that. That’s a cultural implementation.”
Simply ignoring modesty requirements does not seem so easy for Muslim women. Ethiopian-born Dutch 1500-meter runner Sifan Hassan said in a Dutch interview that she wishes she could wear the hijab and burqa to comply with her Islamic beliefs, but it’s just not possible when competing at a world-class level. She doesn’t cover her hair, and wears a singlet and shorts on the track. I requested an interview with Hassan, but her agent said she struggles to reconcile her life as an elite athlete with her religion, and was not ready to discuss it with me.
Recently a small but growing group of Muslims, mostly women—Asra Nomani, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others—have argued that the Quran’s rules on women’s covering have either been mistranslated or misinterpreted. Though Zaman admitted that Islam’s patriarchal structure might influence cultural practices, he was highly dismissive of alternate interpretations: “People who have made such arguments have very rightfully been dismissed by the bulk of the Muslim community as intellectual lightweights with zero relevance to Islamic scholarship.”
Like all religious practices, lived Islam has changed over time, and from one culture to another. In the 1970s, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Afghanistan, Morocco, and Somalia were generally more permissive than today. Though they considered themselves observant Muslims, most Iranian women didn’t cover their hair, wore western attire, and participated without restriction in sports. Today, Iranian women are required by law to wear at least a hijab, and violators are beaten and arrested by the country’s morality police. The words of the Quran did not change in the intervening decades, but the cultural interpretation of them did. Similarly, exercising in the absence of men, or the idea that women participating in sports is inherently un-Islamic, are nowhere to be found in the Quran, but are modern cultural implementations of the modesty rule.
If Somali women enjoyed a long history of freedom of dress and activity, why would they adopt a more restrictive interpretation of Islam, particularly in the Twin Cities, where covering and gender segregation aren’t the norm? Zaman deflected this question as the realm of sociology, but said one theory is that Somalis reacted to religious suppression by the government in the 1980s by proudly becoming more observant. This is the most commonly held version of the shift in cultural norms. But it’s not the only one.
Cawo Abdi, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, is a Muslim who was born in Somalia. She neither covers her hair nor wears long skirts. She traced the role of Somali women from pre-civil war to refugee camps to life in Minnesota in a paper entitled Convergence of Civil War and The Religious Right: Reimagining Somali Women, published in 2007. She followed that with first-person interviews in the Minneapolis Somali community, published in a 2014 paper titled Threatened Identities and Gendered Opportunities. While her studies are not specific to athletics, they discuss changes in attitudes toward women, their activities, and their attire, all factors that shape Somali women’s participation in sports.
The opening paragraph of her study set the tone for a view of the change in Somali society that’s markedly different from any other in the Somali community, and one that none of the people I spoke with for this article had even heard of:
“The gendered consequences of war go beyond the physical and psychological violence to which women are subjected through rape and terror, extending to insidious practices and invented traditions that further consolidate patriarchy and exacerbate women’s social subordination…. As a consequence of civil war and its devastating effects, people whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed are turning to versions of religion that were never part of their cultural and traditional repertoire. Despite their recent adoption, these new religious practices are constructed as the natural way of things, neglected out of ignorance for a long time but finally rediscovered and re-embraced.”
Abdi describes a “re-Islamicization” of Somali women through a combination of fear and coercion—as a means of survival during war—and argues that this shift has further subordinated them. While Somali women’s re-Islamicization was hastened and cemented by the upheaval of civil war and subsequent diaspora, Abdi noted it is part of a worldwide rise in the practice of conservative interpretations of Islam.
Her view that Somali women are subjugated by conservative Islam is held by many non-Somalis in the Twin Cities, but vehemently rejected by the Somali community itself. And broaching the question, as I did with the Imam Asad Zaman—“Your standard western feminist perspective is unlikely to let you properly understand the issue”—is dismissed as a demonstration of ignorance or Islamophobia.
According to Abdi, prior to the civil war when most Somalis practiced a relatively nomadic way of life, women typically wore a thin dress over a half-slip and a brassiere, and did not cover their hair. Conservative Islamic groups infiltrated Somalia in the 1980s but, Abdi wrote, their ideas didn’t catch on: “Most women, and Somali society in general, perceived the new conservatism as a challenge to their freedom of movement, association, and dress, a challenge to the autonomy that women inherited from their nomadic culture.”
As Somalia descended into violence, women in Mogadishu began covering their head and shoulders, and those who didn’t were subject to harassment, Abdi found in her research. Women, often separated from their families and caring for children, became vulnerable, both while fleeing and in refugee camps. Rape was so devastatingly common, and Somali women’s recourse so minimal, they started wearing pants under their dress, a practice that persists today. “If a woman is wearing a dirac [a Somali dress], it can just be pulled or torn off in no time; but if she has tight trousers underneath then help may come in time,” one woman told Abdi. Covering, and wearing layers of clothing, prevented assault both by signaling that a woman was modest and devout, and by simply requiring more time to remove.
Similar to the story of Eve sullying the Garden of Eden, Abdi wrote, in Somali culture it is believed that the chaos and misery of the civil war was caused by practicing a tainted version of Islam, particularly with regard to the liberal attitudes toward women’s behavior and dress. Therefore, the path to rightness with God was to practice a “purer” form of Islam, one in which women covered and isolated themselves from men. Impoverished, afraid, vulnerable, and blamed for the collapse of their country, Abdi found that Somali women readily accepted restrictions on attire and activities. Neither a free choice nor a direct imposition, Abdi explained the shift in women’s dress and behavior as a matter of survival, not—as nearly everyone in the Somali community will tell you—a religious enlightenment freely chosen out of respect for Islam.
In subsequent research on the dynamic between Somali men and women as acculturating immigrants in the Twin Cities, Abdi explained that increased opportunities for women in education, work, and yes, in sports, doesn’t necessarily empower them. First- and second-generation immigrants still have to live within the parameters of the Somali community or risk alienation. For example, if Fartun Osman had decided not to cover when she moved to St. Paul, she would likely have been shunned by her community, her life as an immigrant and single mother made even more difficult. She certainly would never have been allowed to coach young girls.
Since most Somalis arrive in the U.S. with little material wealth, the Islamic ideal of the male breadwinner and stay-at-home housewife is rarely possible. Women contributing to household income, pursuing education, and interacting in the larger Twin Cities society, Abdi wrote, erodes Somali men’s power, even as they accept its necessity. She pointed to a popular Somali poem from the 1950s that lamented women’s change in attitude when they moved from nomadic life to the city, similar to shifts that happen when they arrive in the U.S.
Oh this is a new age for women
There was a time when a destitute man had a chance with them
If he beat her when she was burdened with a child
She did not dare reveal what her husband had done
She tolerated hardship and hunger
And now no man dares visit her unless he is wearing a suit
Their arrogance, aggressiveness, and poise
When they are walking around in the market
Their grace in walk and quality of dress
Their arrogance, aggressiveness, and poise
You would think that the women of this age had no vaginas
First-generation Somali immigrants must play by the rules of the Somali community, Abdi wrote, since they aren’t familiar with and may not trust the public support structure. While they’re undertaking traditionally un-Islamic women’s activities like working outside the home and owning businesses—essentially breaking what Abdi calls the “gender bargain”—women can demonstrate their religiosity and assuage disempowered Somali men by clinging to covering and female-only exercising, or by simply not being physically active. Sacrificing sports may be an acceptable price to pay for first- and second-generation women for the freedom to navigate life between the Somali community and the greater Twin Cities.
But it doesn’t have to be. When Fadumo Mohamed decided she needed to lose weight, covering her hair, arms, and legs was a given, but a women’s-only environment was negotiable. After starting out at a women’s-only Life Time Fitness, Mohamed worked up to running outdoors in public and eventually to participating in a half-marathon road race. The only Somali woman visible in a river of shorts-clad men and women, she wore a headscarf, loose pants, and a t-shirt, exposing her forearms.
“It wasn’t difficult, it just takes dedication,” she said. “Sometimes when you do something different, people say you’re running away from your culture. I’m not running away from culture: My culture is in me, this is who I am. I feel like I have the best of both worlds—my values and the values of American culture. ”
She gushed about how training and racing boosted her self-esteem, and provided a connection to the wider Twin Cities community—“This sounds racist, but I thought running was for white people”—but few other Somali women followed her example. She admitted, even though she had dressed modestly, she may have received criticism for running in view of men (“I don’t pay attention to that”), something less confident Somali women have been unable to ignore. But instead of suggesting that these repressive beliefs should change, Fadumo demurred: “You know, we are weak. It’s easy to assume that if you’re covered, you’re X’d out of sports. It’s an excuse to be lazy and not do anything in life. If they had separate gym time [in high school] so guys can’t see you, girls could wear less clothes and it would eliminate that excuse. That would expose girls to sports while they’re young, they would get stronger, and be comfortable doing sports as they got older.”
Somalia has never had a strong international presence in sports—the country first sent athletes to the Olympics in 1972, with its largest contingent, seven athletes, in 1984. The only Olympic medals won by Somalis have been by those who lived and trained in their adopted countries, like Britain’s Mo Farah and America’s Abdi Abdirahman. The beginning of the civil war and subsequent upheaval coincided with neighboring Kenyan and Ethiopian runners asserting themselves on a global scale. Somali athletes were late entrants into that game, but among the diaspora, it didn’t take long for boys to discover their talent for running. Famously, Abdirahman, then a freshman at Tucson’s Pima Community College, thought running looked too hard, but a friend suggested that since he was a “skinny African guy” like those who were cleaning up at races, he should give cross country a try. Abdirahman went on to become a four-time Olympian and is still one of the U.S.’s best distance runners.
The highly decorated Farah did not start running until his teen years, after his family settled in England. He’s won four Olympic gold medals and is currently one of the top distance runners in the world.
Somalis began settling in Minnesota soon after 1991, mostly due to immigrant-friendly public services, and active local voluntary agencies like Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, and World Relief Minnesota. Consequently, the Twin Cities area is a fairly diverse island in an overwhelmingly white state. Because of their visibly different attire, Somali women continue to represent the whole Somali community, usually as an example of their otherness. Somali boys dress, and act like any of the boys already here: they wear jeans and hoodies, play video games—and with no restriction on clothing or gender-separate facilities—quickly showed their talent for sports.
In 2005, Hassan Mead, who immigrated to the U.S. five years earlier, was busy becoming one of Minneapolis’s South High School’s most decorated athletes, eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he forged a stellar running resume. Since 2012, Mead has been making a living on the track, training with Oregon Track Club Elite, and representing the U.S. in the Rio Olympics at 5000 meters.
In 2006, the Willmar (Minn.) High School boys cross country team won the Minnesota state meet with an all-Somali top five. There were no Somali girls on the Willmar girls cross country team at the time. To teachers and coaches, girls were different. They wore hijabs and long skirts, and didn’t seem interested in sports at all. High school track and cross country coaches, mostly male, walked on eggshells around Somali girls, afraid of offending their religion. If no Somali girls came out for the team, coaches felt it would be inappropriate to press the issue like they might while recruiting other students.
“The boys on that team were like family,” said then-Willmar cross country coach Jerry Popp. “We had them over for dinner. We picked them up and drove them home. But the girls? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not in their culture to do sports. They just go home after school.”
Sarah Hopkins, head women’s cross country coach at the University of Minnesota, echoed that feeling of helplessness: “I should know more, but I just don’t know enough about the religion and the culture to know why there just aren’t any Somali girls to recruit. I mean, we’ve got our eyes open. We have a legacy with Hassan [Mead] and Harun [Abda]. I don’t know about other sports, but the boys’ side of cross country, the top 10 or 15 at the state meet is very diverse. The girls’ side is pretty white, unfortunately. Something doesn’t make sense. There’s these obviously talented girls not getting involved in athletics.”
Cultural norms change over time. Immigrant populations struggle with which parts of their culture to hold onto, and which to let go. Ten years have passed since Chelsey Thul conducted her first research, and elementary schools now have second- and even third-generation Somali-Americans.
Fartun Osman has devoted her life to making sports accessible to Somali girls, coaching numerous soccer and basketball teams. The fact that she is Somali and covers eases most parents’ reluctance, but she goes much further than most coaches would, sometimes paying fees, providing equipment, and most importantly, transportation. Osman spends two hours before and after every game picking up and dropping off girls at home. It’s hard to say whether, as those girls get older, they will continue participating in sports with a male coach who can’t devote so much time to them.
I heard numerous stories of girls being active in sports until about 16 years of age. It seemed like sports were okay for Somali girls, but not for Somali women. Twenty-two-year-old Muna Mohamed told me one about a friend of hers: “She was a really good basketball player. The pressure came onto her when she was 16—not religiously, but culturally. Culture says, ‘you’re a girl.’ Her family wanted her to be physically active but they said, ‘Why do you have to run around in front of men?’ She saw that education, her culture, and her religion were more important than playing sports. So she quit.”
Mohamed’s story had a similar start, but turned out differently. “In 11th grade, I got hit in the mouth with a basketball,” she said. “My mom had gotten used to me playing sports, and my grades were good. But with her it was always, ‘Don’t get hurt.’ To satisfy my mother, I decided to play basketball on my own after that.”
Mohamed, who is now in the U of M’s Masters in Science program working as a grad assistant with Chelsey Thul, pointed to a number of reasons few Somali girls participate in sports. Parents, she said, prioritize education and getting a job over sports, and that girls of all cultures have more pressure to be practical than boys do. For an immigrant family, perhaps struggling financially, sports are impractical.
She also mentioned a lack of role models—professional Somali athletes who cover—as a big problem for young girls. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a Somali woman and the leading scorer for Indiana State basketball, could not continue as a professional because the WNBA does not allow hijabs. (Only last month did FIBA vote to allow coverings.) “When Somalis see girls in sports on TV, they see women wearing barely anything,” Mohamed said. “They want to see women covered. If they saw a Muslim woman covered playing sports, the story would be different. They would say, ‘I want that for my sister and for my daughter.’ They would say, ‘She has her faith and her traditions and her values and she can still achieve whatever she’s doing. She’s not oppressed.”
.@WorldPlayersUtd & @uniglobalunion look forward to @FIBA overturning controversial headgear rule https://t.co/cdewtC5Msk pic.twitter.com/2rRg1r4ZtR
— Brendan Schwab (@BrendanSchwab) May 3, 2017
Though she quit playing high school basketball, Mohamed saw a way to be that role model herself. “I thought I could be more influential as a coach. I wanted their coach to look like them. I want my girls to go to the WNBA.”
Within a week back in 2010, Jennifer Weber had rounded up a girls’ and a boys’ basketball team at the Cedar Riverside Community School. It turns out that not only were the girls very interested, which did not surprise Weber, but she received very little pushback from parents, which did. Weber told parents the girls could wear whatever they needed to and that the girls would have the gym to themselves. At the same time, she wanted parents to understand her commitment was to developing lifelong athletes.
“Parents were saying, ‘She doesn’t have to wear hijab when she plays’, or ‘She can wear basketball shorts,’” Weber said. “I asked them, ‘What happens when she’s not a little girl anymore and she still wants to play basketball in high school, where they’re not going to block off the gym?’ I told them if their daughter is used to playing like this, she’s not going to want to cover later, or quit because it’s not women’s-only. Basically, the answer I got was that they’d figure that out when they got there.”
Weber bought snug-fitting warm-up shirts that covered the neck, which the girls could wear under their jerseys. She volunteered her time after school, in the evenings, and on weekends, trying to find times when the one gym at the Brian Coyle Community Center could be girls-only. She walked each girl home after practice. Gradually, she built trust in a community suspicious of outsiders to begin with, and made more so by growing anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiments and actions.
Girls and their parents requested more sports. Weber started a running club, and a coed soccer program. “[Chelsey Thul’s] research is 10 years old,” Weber said. “There are still people in the community who don’t want girls to be active, and some still need a girls-only setting, but I’m seeing a huge shift in parents’ attitudes. They’ve started coming to practices, coming to games. Their daughters want to do sports, and parents see it’s a good thing—they want that for their children. It was right there on the flier—coed soccer. And kids showed up.”
In 2014, Weber and Muna Mohamed combined their basketball programs, ostensibly to make better use of the extremely limited gym time at Brian Coyle, the only one serving a community of nearly 8,000. But more than that, the unlikely duo shared a love of sports and of kids, especially the kids in Cedar-Riverside.
The 2014 American Community Survey showed that the average household income in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood was $13,950, while the average household income in greater Minneapolis was $55,956. Thirty-seven percent of Cedar-Riverside residents over 25 have less than a high school degree, while only eight percent of the rest of Hennepin County does. Over 55 percent of Cedar-Riverside families with children were headed by a single woman, and almost 53 percent of Cedar-Riverside residents speak a language other than English at home.
“Muna and I are investing in these kids,” Weber said. “We’re volunteering because we want them to be successful. We believe in sports, that these things will change their viewpoint and give them opportunity. It won’t change their life—they have to do that—but sports will give them the opportunity.”
But for sports to be a vehicle for opportunity, girls have to continue into high school. The attrition rate for all adolescents is steep—70 percent of all kids stop doing sports after age 13, according to Chelsey Thul. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is that high school sports, especially in metro areas, are extremely competitive. And that hits Somali girls especially hard.
“Girls who make the high school basketball team started when they were five years old, and play year-round traveling basketball. That’s years of training, and it’s expensive,” Weber said. “You can’t just play rec league and hope to make the high school team. It was a dream of Muna and I, from way back, to have a Cedar Riverside traveling team, so the girls can be competitive, so they can continue in sports.”
Parents could see the benefits—girls got exercise, they could still cover, they didn’t give up their culture, their grades did not suffer—and they learned to trust Coach Weber and Coach Muna. In fact, Mohamed now coaches some of the boys’ teams—a seismic shift in gender roles.
In the spring of 2016, Weber and Mohamed launched the Cedar Riverside Community Traveling Basketball team, with squads for boys in the sixth, eighth, and 10th grades, and girls in sixth and 8th grades. They included boys’ teams, Weber said, because boys in the neighborhood also have a hard time finding transportation and affording the fees of existing traveling programs. Weber had to cut 54 boys but only two girls, so clearly girls’—not all Somali, but mostly—participation still lags. But the two coaches have a plan for that. This year, they’re adding a girls’ fourth grade team.
“The number one reason to go down to the younger age is, the earlier they start being physically active, the more likely they get hooked on it,” Weber said. “The girls will have more skills by the time they get to high school, they’ll want to keep playing, and parents will figure out a way to make that OK.”
After practice, I spoke with 11-year-old Suhaila, a smaller but scrappy member of the traveling team. She said she had played basketball and soccer on Minneapolis Park and Rec teams when she was younger. Suhaila’s dad was not strict, and said she did not have to wear a hijab when playing basketball, only at school and while walking around. Asked who her role models were, she wondered, “In the WNBA?” and then settled, closer to home, on her older friend Zubeda, who played basketball for Roosevelt High School.
Suhaila planned to play basketball at DeLaSalle (a Catholic high school in Minneapolis) and in college, and then she would become a lawyer. She said she didn’t know of any girls whose parents wouldn’t let them participate in sports, but she knew some girls who didn’t like sports. “They’re just on their phones,” she said. “They have Instagram and Snapchat, and they say, ‘We should hang out,’ but I don’t have time for that.”
Two days later, I was back at Brian Coyle Center for the girls’ three-on-three Winter Break Tournament, an exhibition event, as high school players were officially in their season. A group of about 20 boys, again, the team managers, were watching, as were about 30 women, mostly mothers of the players. There were no adult men present. Some girls covered their hair while playing, others didn’t, though all the Somali girls wrapped a hijab and slipped on a long skirt before they left the gym.
Fifteen-year-old Zubeda plays for Roosevelt High School, and will play on the Cedar Riverside traveling team once the high school season is over. She also runs track (“I love running”), and plays softball, soccer, volleyball, and tennis. A slight, smiling girl, she covered her hair, and wore a t-shirt and sweatpants while playing. She mentioned that if older men were there, all the girls would play in hijabs. “My parents say, ‘Try to be modest,’ so I cover my hair,” she said, “though sometimes it’s a little hard because it comes untied. Parents in this neighborhood want their girls to be playing with their friends and being active, but they want them to be modest at the same time. They can come and see what’s going on; they trust Coach Weber.”
Zubeda explained why some Somali girls don’t continue playing sports in high school. “They’re afraid someone will say, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ or that they won’t be good enough,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to try out for basketball because, the summer before that, Coach Weber made us practice 24/7; she worked us really hard and gave us confidence.” Zubeda expects to go to college and play basketball there too.
All of the adult women watching the tournament wore hijabs and long skirts, and heavy parkas because it was bitterly cold outside. One woman who was there to watch her 12-year-old daughter said she herself didn’t play basketball when she lived in Somalia because, “basketball is only in the U.S.” Fartun Osman, who had played national-level basketball in Somalia, sat a few feet away. It reminded me of sociologist Cawo Abdi writing, “An amnesia‐like state surrounds this topic, and this amnesia is omnipresent in its naturalness, subversiveness, and subtleness.”
Asked why her daughter plays basketball, the woman said, “For exercise. It’s good to be active; they have to do something. It’s good to be with her friends, as long as there’s a teacher or coach or somebody present. She can cover or not. She can do whatever she wants; she’s free.”
If Chelsey Thul followed up on her 2014 study today, she would probably find more Somali girls being physically active due to some combination of assimilation, greater financial stability that allows room for “extras” like sports, more role models, and more opportunities like Cedar Riverside Traveling Basketball.
“Most of the research I’ve done shows adolescents who are second-generation immigrants are more liberal,” Thul said. “In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a shift. At first, the boys were angry that the girls had usurped ‘their’ gym time. Now the boys are super-supportive of the girls playing basketball. Muna went from being one of those girls taking their gym time to coaching a boys’ team. They listen to her, they respect her—that’s huge in this community.”
Time smooths out sharp edges and reorders priorities. Parents are finding a way to let their daughters’ love of sports and their culture coexist. The Cedar Riverside traveling team is a heartening development. But it’s hard to think of this as progress, in part, because it’s still regressed from what it was 30 years ago. If we are to rely on Cawo Abdi’s research, it’s hard not to believe that these circumstances exist because a bunch of men started a war in Somalia that displaced millions, imposed their interpretation of the Quran onto women by violence and coercion, and justified it as enlightenment. That’s why Chelsey Thul’s work, Fartun Osman’s advocacy and leadership, Fadumo Mohamed’s overdressed half-marathon, Sifan Hassan’s internal turmoil, and a lack of female Hassan Meads at the U of M exist. Few Somalis, and even fewer non-Somalis, are aware of or accept how the cultural norms we’re seeing today in the Twin Cities came to be.
Decades and dollars have gone into satisfying cultural requirements to allow these girls to play sports—rules that did not exist in this particular community 30 years ago. According to Imam Asad Zaman, one third of Muslim women globally do not wear a hijab or other covering. Until about 1990, Somali women were among that group. Zaman told me women who don’t cover “have not perfected their practice of Islam.” But the Quran says nothing about women not being active anywhere within the visual range of a man: That is not a religious requirement. Neither is the idea that women simply shouldn’t be active. It doesn’t seem sustainable or fair to build Somali-American women’s sports on man-made interpretations that can change on a whim.
Somali women are the ultimate survivors, masters of playing by ever-changing rules. They’ve launched businesses, won public office, and established professional careers, all while cooking dinner and raising children. Heck, they’ve learned how to dribble down court and hit a three wearing a full-length skirt and a headscarf. Though they’re operating in a patriarchy-within-a-patriarchy, they’re far from powerless. I think of what Fadumo Mohamed said—“I’m not running away from culture: My culture is in me. This is who I am.” She’s not the only one. There are plenty of Somali-American female athletes in the Twin Cities; they’re only just realizing it.