Dress doesn't keep Muslim athlete off the field

By Molly Farmer

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 21 2011 4:55 p.m. MDT

In a Sept. 8, 2011 photo, Cottonwood High junior varsity soccer player Serene Kergaye heads the ball during a game in Murray, Utah. Kergaye is Muslim and wears full covering from head to toe.

Deseret News, Jeffrey D. Allerd, Associated Press

MURRAY, Utah — Serene Kergaye's religion is important to her — so important that she wears a headscarf, long sleeves and long pants even when she's on the soccer field at Cottonwood High School.

Kergaye is Muslim, and the monochromatic clothes she wears under her uniform during games don't bother her one bit. They are a way to uphold the modesty standards that are part of her faith.

"It's really thin and loose. It's not that hot, I don't think," she said. "Yeah, I look kind of weird on the field. I'll be dressed head to toe in one color, because we have to be either white or black, but oh well, I'd rather play."

While her coach acknowledges other teams might "do a double take" when they see Kergaye from the sidelines, her teammates know her personally and see beyond the differences.

"She's just a very sweet person anyway, and the girls just . they love her," said coach Angela Hamilton.

Kergaye's uniform might look different compared to her teammates, but state athletic directors say uniform accommodations are built into the rules for every sport in order to protect religious expression.

"(We want) to allow the individuals to maintain practices and still compete," said Bart Thompson, assistant director of the Utah High School Activities Association.

Each sport has specific rules for uniforms that participants must follow. But within those rules are accommodations for students like Kergaye, who want to play, but have special requirements.

"The rules are written to promote fair, even competition for everybody," Thompson said. "If you've got a situation that doesn't fundamentally alter the competition, you're going to be OK."

In Kergaye's case, it was a non-issue, since the extra clothing she wears as part of her religious expression in no way impede or alter the way the game is played.

There are similar accommodations for students with prosthetic limbs, religious jewelry and other special circumstances. Thompson said schools always want to encourage participation, so if an accommodation for a specific situation isn't written into the rule, they'll find a way to make it work. That's what happened a few years ago when a Jewish high school student with a beard joined the wrestling team. Rules for wrestling prohibit beards.

The UHSAA obtained permission from the National Federation of State High School Associations that allowed the student to wear a special face mask during play.

"Schools are asking for accommodations to be made in that regard rather than denying," Thompson said.

Kergaye jumps at the opportunity to show other people the things they have in common and dispel false perceptions.

"We don't sit in our basements all day and make bombs," she said. "We play soccer, we play football."

Kergaye's coach said she's impressed with her outgoing player's dedication.

"It's really neat to see somebody that dedicated to something they believe in," Hamilton said.

Kergaye's parents were both born in the United States, and both come from a Muslim background. They have roots from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Switzerland.

During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, adherents fast every day from sunrise to sunset. This year, Ramadan began Aug. 1, and Kergaye still participated in soccer just like the other girls.

"It was a lot harder this year, fasting and playing. Usually I only have one game and one practice a week, but this year it was every day, four to five hours a day. It was really hard," she said. "But it was fun."

Her coach said she didn't let her fast interfere with her play. "She was completely dedicated and wanted to do everything the team did. ... She refused to take it easy."

That's in part because Kergaye had a sense of humor about it.

"She would come every day, and she would say stuff like, 'I'm so excited for when I can eat again, because I'm going to take on all of you guys. I'm going to take you down!" recounted teammate Ali Bromley-Dulfano.

Kergaye said it's not about the fasting and the layers of clothing to her, it's about living her religion.

"Pretty much, everybody thinks their religion is 'the religion,' but I think mine is right, so I'm going to follow it and I'm not going to go half way," she said.

Teammates say that dedication extends onto the field.

"Of all the girls on the team, Serene probably puts the most into her playing," Bromley-Dulfano said.

"I get to be different," Kergaye said. "I'm OK with that."

Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com

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