Unfair Game

Hijab is a word too often defined as a simple piece of cloth some Muslim women use to cover their hair. In reality, the concept of hijab is much more vast, as it connotes the modesty in dress, action and character both Muslim women and men are to uphold. But this is not a story about hijab.

This is a story about basketball, and the right to play.

Meet Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a young woman you may remember from PUNKS in SLAM 129. That was more than 50 issues ago, so let’s refresh. Abdul-Qaadir hails from Springfield, MA, where she was the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year and where she broke Rebecca Lobo’s state-wide scoring record (for both boys and girls) with 3,061 points. She went on to play Division I basketball for the Memphis Tigers and Indiana State Sycamores, all while practicing the aforementioned hijab.

“Now that I look back on it, you really have to be strong, and that’s mentally,” the now 23-year-old Abdul-Qaadir says. “Because I could’ve taken the easy way out and say, You know what? I don’t even want to cover.”

Abdul-Qaadir was the first Muslim woman to play at a level as competitive and elite as DI of the NCAA while wearing the hijab. Her hijab never held her back or got in the way of her game or others’. It only inspired.

“The fact that you can have people look up to you, that’s something that always surprised me. I’m still not used to it,” she says. “That people come up to me like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ and are so inspired by my whole story. It’s just really me playing basketball.”

In a particular incident, Abdul-Qaadir’s Tigers played Tulane University, who had a Muslim player of their own in Indira Kaljo.

“[Abdul-Qaadir] is definitely a revolutionary type of girl, Masha’Allah [tr. what God wills],” Kaljo says. “When I saw her—this was before I had even begun thinking about wearing hijab—I just respected her so much for doing it.”

But recently, as Abdul-Qaadir looked to play for a team in an overseas league, she hit a major roadblock. Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules states, “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.” It forbids players from wearing any kind of “headgear” during competitive play save for a maximum 5-centimeter headband, which is all good and fair assuming the headgear could potentially harm players. But a soft piece of fabric worn as part of one’s religious beliefs—whether a hijab, turban or yarmulke—doesn’t pose a threat to anyone’s safety.

Kaljo too heard of FIBA’s ban, soon after she chose to don the hijab herself. Although she played two seasons professionally overseas without it, her decision to practice this aspect of her religion could possibly end her playing career.

“It’s heartbreaking, it really is heartbreaking…I can’t even put into words how much basketball means to me. It got me through the toughest of times when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then she passed away from it,” Kaljo says. “[Basketball] is one thing that has been steady in my life, and I love it with a passion.”

Both Kaljo and Abdul-Qaadir say this issue is much bigger than themselves.

“[Playing with hijab] should be honored as a positive thing and not be something that should have to end [Abdul-Qaadir’s] career or mine or any other girls’ around the world,” Kaljo says. “If she wants to play covered, why not?”

The issues of religious marking and uniformity, like the safety issue, are also weak. Kaljo says many of her teammates have tattoos of religious symbols, and those were never a problem. As for uniformity, players do their hair in different ways, some wear compression tights and sleeves, while others do not.

When Abdul-Qaadir last spoke to FIBA about her options, she was told a petition wouldn’t speed up the process, and the best thing she could do is try to sign with a team that’ll then help appeal the rule. But the idea of signing a player who might not even be able to compete doesn’t seem like an attractive option for any team.

Despite FIBA’s advice on a petition being ineffective, Kaljo recently launched one and has Abdul-Qaadir’s support.

“It’s frustrating to see that, the fact that just last year [Kaljo] was playing, and then you want to tell her no because she put the scarf on her head,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “Hopefully, that can add some fuel to the fire and stir people just a little bit for them to see there’s more of us, and there’s gonna be more young Muslim women to come to play basketball.”

In March, FIFA lifted its ban on religious head coverings after a trial period proved the clothing posed no threat to players’ safety. We have yet to see if FIBA will follow suit. People don’t remain silent when other organizations discriminate against potential employees based on their religious practices, so what excuses FIBA from the same kind of accountability?

Hijab is too often used as an excuse to discriminate against a number of Muslim women who choose to wear it. In reality, it doesn’t pose a threat to her or others around her, but simply reminds her constantly of who she’s really working for—God.

OK, fine. So this is a story about hijab. And basketball. And the right to play.

Photos via David Shields at isubball.com and Indira Kaljo.