Ames, Ia. – She’d made it. The end of the road. Heba Kamal slowed to a jog, lifted her arms high and gently set moist hands on either side of the black scarf atop her head. At first, the breaths came short and hard, like the gulps of a fish just plucked from the water. Her sides burned. Then she heard them. “A couple of teenagers sitting there,” the Ames High School senior says quietly. “They just laughed when I ended the race. They were all looking at me. It just made me angry. Is it funny because I’m running while I’m covered?” She doesn’t mind if you ask. What she minds is if you assume. Yes, Heba Kamal is Muslim. Yes, she prays five times a day. She also loves watching “The Simpsons.” Profile at your peril. “I don’t really blame people for not knowing too much,” Heba says. “Once you talk to them, they’re very understanding.
What’s frustrating is people who judge you right away.” D’oh! Heba, 17, has run with Ames’ junior varsity girls’ track team each of the last two springs. She does this while wearing a headscarf known as a hijab, long sleeves and long pants. Always. Rain or shine. “The first two things I’ll hear at meets are usually what religion and why,” Ames track coach Kirk Schmaltz explains. “But the third comment was usually, ‘Hey, that’s pretty neat. I’m really glad she had enough courage to come out and do this.’ “In athletics, you’re in an arena, you’re in a showcase- type thing. To be able to say, ‘Hey, this is who I am and this is what I’m doing and it’s OK,’ hopefully other faiths will say, ‘We can be accepted. We’re being treated right.’ ” Heba is a Sunni. She was born in Canada to Egyptian parents. She was raised in English and Arabic. Her education began at an American school in Kuwait, where her father taught computer and electrical engineering at a local university. When he got a job at Iowa State in 2001, the family moved to Ames.
Some women of Islamic faith traditionally cover themselves as a sign of modesty. Most girls wait until they’re 16 or 17 years old before they’re comfortable with a hijab; Heba began wearing hers at 11. “People think it was really early for me,” she says. “I was starting to grow up. I felt I was ready. My mother told me, ‘Remember, you’re going to have to do it at some point in your life.’ But I was the one who decided when to do it. She didn’t have to force me.” Schmaltz calls Heba an inspiration. Not because she ran a 41.28 in the 200 at the Jim Duea Invitational. Because she ran. (MORE)