Rania Benatia spends a lot of time thinking about her hijab first thing in the morning. When Benatia is getting ready for school, she has to pick the scarf which best matches her outfit. She wears a hijab to be modest, but owns “so many different colors and patterns and sequins and stuff” she can still be stylish.
But once Benatia tightens her hijab over her hair and heads out the door, she hopes no one else will think about it.
Benatia has worn hijab, the Islamic headscarf, since she started at Hanover Park. She “made an agreement” with her mother, Hayet Khezar, that she’d wear it when she went into high school, like her older sister, Ouarida Benatia, had. Since her sister left for college, Rania Benatia is one of just two hijab-wearing students at Hanover Park.
“It’s definitely something people notice. You can tell,” said Benatia, a junior thrower on the Hornets’ indoor and outdoor track and field teams.
“At track meets, I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You’re wearing a hijab and competing, that’s so cool. That’s something I’ve never seen before.’ Even at school, people come up to me sometimes, people who don’t know me. It’s true, you don’t really see a lot of people who are wearing hijab competing. People think it’s restrictive, or there’s a barrier. I feel like that’s more of a mental barrier.”
Around the world
Fourteen Muslim women from almost as many countries and sports won medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That list includes Dalilah Muhammad – the first female American gold medalist in the 400 hurdles – and Ibtihaj Muhammad of Maplewood, a bronze-medal sabre fencer. The first American woman to compete at the Olympics in a hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad inspired Nike to design hijabs specifically for athletics – and her own Barbie doll, complete with long pants, white flowered tunic and black headscarf.
Some sports’ international governing bodies, including soccer and basketball, have since lifted their bans on head coverings, eliminating a barrier that forced women to choose between their sport and their faith.
“I did definitely feel a panic, like, ‘Oh my gosh, will I be able to do this? Will my scarf get in the way? Will I have to change the way I dress?'” Benatia said. “You don’t see a lot of people doing it, so you’re thinking, ‘How can I do something no one else has been doing?’ … Your religion and your culture and your personal preferences shouldn’t interfere with what you want to do. That’s why I wanted to join track. I wanted to do it. What would stop me?”
Benatia had played basketball as a freshman, and “not going to lie, I was really bad at it.” Hanover Park girls track coach Bill DiMauro started talking to Benatia about switching sports during sophomore year honors chemistry. Her hijab came up, but only briefly, as DiMauro asked, “Oh, can you compete in that? Do they make them out of different materials? … You don’t want her to be too hot, but she’s wearing something that’s part of her.”
Benatia is “not a fan of running,” so she immediately gravitated toward throwing events. She had lifted weights with her father, and DiMauro was impressed to discover Benatia was one of the strongest of the Hornets’ track and field athletes — male or female.
“During her freshman year, we got into a conversation, ‘What’s one thing you wish people knew about you?'” said Rachel Maggioncalda, the Hornets’ winter coach.
“Her answer was, ‘People think I’m meek. People expect me to be quiet and not have anything to say. But I’m not meek. I’m talkative.’ … She’s pretty deliberate and well thought out and an excellent debater. She’s eager to address things when they come up. … A lot of the things that make her an excellent student translate to the discipline necessary when it comes to track and field. We didn’t have to tell her that. We don’t have to remind her. She brings that each and every day.”
Benatia threw a personal best 33 feet to finish fourth as Hanover Park won the NJSIAA North 2 Group II team title indoors.
Benatia’s goal is to place in shot at North 2 Group II in the spring while helping the Hornets defend their title. She’s hoping to get up to 35 feet during the outdoor season, also improve in discus, and possibly try the javelin.
Finding her place
However, Benatia’s faith may interfere with her academic and athletic pursuits this spring.
Ramadan falls during May, so Benatia will forego food or water from dawn to dusk during both sectionals and AP exams. She already brought the holiday up to DiMauro, who is counting on Benatia to score points toward a potential sectional championship.
“It’s just a part of her, one of her decisions, and I respect that a lot,” Hanover Park junior distance runner Isabel Ramos said. “It doesn’t define her. I find it really inspiring, her dedication to her religion, and wanting to express her faith that way.”
Benatia’s family emigrated from Algeria to New Jersey in 2004, when she was 2 years old. She speaks Arabic and an Algerian dialect, and understands French. Her father, Sami Benatia, a registered nurse who works as a mailman, goes to mosque on Fridays – and Rania tries to attend when her schedule permits. She also prays multiple times a day, trying to squeeze her devotions in before school, but usually “I make them up after school.”
Sami Benatia, who was a gym teacher and volleyball coach in Algeria, encouraged Rania to stay active, as did her mother.
“They said, ‘You’d better be good. You have to represent,'” Rania Benatia said with a chuckle. “I guess I didn’t disappoint.”