More high school girls are playing competitive sports than ever before. But for some devoutly religious girls, balancing faith and athletics can be a challenge. This week in Washington, DC, a Muslim high school track star was kicked out of a meet because her special uniform violated competition rules.
Last month in Canada, the issue made national headlines when a 14-year old soccer player was ejected from a game for wearing her hijaab head scarf. Here in Connecticut, a unique girls basketball team has so far managed to skirt the controversy. The girls practice lay-up shots before the evening game. They call themselve the BCA Skirts. BCA â€“ for Beth Chana Academy, a private Orthodox Jewish school in Orange, Connecticut. And Skirts for the traditional long dress the girls wear off the court...and on. "Its my religion and I wouldnâ€™t give it up for anything. So had I had a choice between religion or basketball, I would definitely pick religion. So now that I have a chance to combine the two and have religion and basketball, its just a very good opportunity," says 16-year old Ariella Hecht.
When in public, Orthodox Jewish law requires young women to dress modestly - with skirts that fall below the knee. They also cover up from their neck to their elbows.
"Its to show the world out there that I have more to me than what meets the eye. And Iâ€™m gonna cover my body because if you want to get to know me, youâ€™re going to have to get to know my insides," she says.
Four years ago the school decided to organize a girlsâ€™ basketball team, and name it after their unorthodox uniforms. The BCA Skirts arenâ€™t part of an established league but they compete informally against many New Haven area schools. Principal Jeanne Rice believes the girls can remain true to traditional Judaic principles and still do just about anything.
"Initially, it was kind of...lets get together, lets have some fun you know and meet some other schools and play together. But along the way the girls have developed this amazing tenacity. Theyâ€™re just spectacular athletes and people donâ€™t expect that, you know, from these girls," she says.
Some girls wear ankle-length skirts with their Nikeâ€™s. 17- year-old point guard Batsheva Levine prefers to wear leggings with a skirt that falls just below her knee. She says the teamâ€™s unusual outfits can be an advantage.
"Sometimes when schools come in, theyâ€™ll like give us looks you know, and theyâ€™ll be like, 'Aw, like you know, we have this game in bagâ€ and like â€œshort little Jews in skirts? Weâ€™re gonna do this real well,'" she says. "Weâ€™ve surprised ourselves, actually, that weâ€™ve had an undefeated season so far."
Tonightâ€™s game is against their toughest rival - an urban charter school in New Havenâ€¦Amistad Academy.
Itsâ€™ their second match-up, so players Shahara Murphy and Jasmine Ramirez say they werenâ€™t as surprised this time by the Skirtsâ€™ uniform. Amistad won the game..
"My only problem is like them tripping over and then the ballâ€¦they lose the ball and it goes out. But I think theyâ€™re really fast on the court to have skirts on," says Ramirez.
The National Federation of State High School Associations allows students to modify athletic uniforms for religious or medical reasons, as long as it doesnâ€™t create dangerous playing conditions. Officials say thereâ€™s no hard data, but anecdotally theyâ€™re hearing that more students are asking for uniform modifications nationwide. BCA coach Jamie Bartone says she never expected to be working with players in skirts.
"The way they look at the game, it surprises me how like, it doesnâ€™t even come into consideration. They have skirts on and thatâ€™s what theyâ€™re used to and thatâ€™s how they play. A few of them actually want to try and pursue basketball at the college level," she says.
And the girls say theyâ€™re not afraid of what will happen when their colleges find out they canâ€™t dribble the ball between their legs. The BCA Skirts say basketballâ€™s taught them that when youâ€™re rooted in tradition, you can aim high.
All photos by WNPR's Chion Wolf. For a slideshow of pictures, go to our WNPR Flickr page.
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