Ahllam Berri gets into the middle of the action for a rebound in game vs Godinez.
Starting forward was hesitant to wear a hijab at first, but says it’s part of who she is now and her peers are supportive.
By Mike Sciacca
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If you didn’t know better, you’d think it’d take Ahllam Berri a littler longer than most players to put on her game face.
White Under Armour leggings and top: check.
Focused mind set: check.
White hijab: check.
Yes, the hijab — a traditional garment or head cover for Muslim women — has distinguished the starting forward from the rest of her teammates on the Laguna Beach High girls’ basketball team.
Make that, has distinguished the senior from all players on the court the past two-plus years.
“It takes me about five to 10 minutes to get ready for a game. That’s it,” she said. “It doesn’t take me that long to put on my head scarf. I put a head band on first, wrap the scarf around, tie it in the back, slip it down and pin it under my chin. I’ve gotten used to it. It’s simple, really.”
Berri, 17, has been wearing the hijab since she was 15. A Muslim girl, she said, starts to wear the headdressing when she turns 9.
“It is expected in the religion to wear it when a girl turns 9, but it is your choice,” Berri said. “My parents never pushed me to wear it, although my mom always reminded me that someday I would wear it.
“Now, it’s a part of who I am. I wear it all day at school and wear it when there are men not related to me are around. Even my male cousins cannot see me without it. I don’t take it off until I’m in my room at home.”
She said she can be seen most days on campus in jeans and a loose, long-sleeved shirt, wearing her head scarf.
Berri, born in Fountain Valley, moved to Laguna Beach before the start of her freshman year. She said she didn’t wear her head scarf her first year at Laguna Beach High due to insecurities.
“I wasn’t too sure about wearing it when I started high school,” she remembered. “I wanted to wear it, but I was just insecure about it. After my freshman year I decided, on my own, to start wearing it. I began to grow up personally and gained confidence. I came into my sophomore year wearing it, without warning anyone at school. When kids at school saw me, they asked questions like, ‘why are you wearing that?,’ or, ‘how come you didn’t wear it before?’
“But everyone was really supportive and accepting. On a few occasions, I’ve even been asked by some teachers at school to speak to their classes, like foreign language and history classes, about my attire and why I wear it. That has given me the opportunity to tell people about my religion. It’s been a positive thing.”
When it comes to playing basketball, Berri — who averages four points and five rebounds a game this year — said the head scarf hasn’t been cumbersome.
“It has slipped a few times, but I just adjust it and get back to the game,” she said.
During her sophomore year on varsity, Berri was nearly unrecognizable facially for a stretch of the 2006-07 season, yet everyone still knew who she was. In addition to wearing her head scarf, she wore a protective face mask after fracturing her nose during a game.
“My teammates looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “Everyone was telling me to take the mask off. It did look pretty crazy.”
Berri played varsity as a sophomore, then junior varsity ball during her junior year before earning a starting spot on varsity this year.
“I had no qualms about her headdress and actually thought it was a physical symbol of her dedication to herself, her faith and our team,” Laguna Coach Jon Hendrickson said. “We’ve had no questions from referees, or opponents, about it.
“It’s been a pleasure to coach Ahllam and see first-hand her dedication. She brings intensity and leadership. She is very committed to the team and her teammates. She’s gotten extremely better and we struggle when she is not on the floor. She is definitely an asset to our team, both on and off the court.”
Although the Breakers will have a tough season end next Tuesday, Berri said she has nothing but great memories of playing for the Breakers.
“I’m extremely glad that I played basketball here,” she said. “I have a real close bond with my teammates, and it’s been a great experience.”
Berri, who intends to study medicine at a four-year university, says her decision to wear the hijab a little more than two years ago has been educational.
“Wearing it has taught me about myself and about people, in general,” she said. “I realize that I’m stronger than I thought and wearing it actually has given me more confidence. It’s also made me want to be a better Muslim.”