Athlete to activist

Player forced out of competitive basketball over hijab ban speaks out on helping overturn the ‘discriminatory headgear rule’

FIBA may have blocked my career, but it was not going to sideline Muslim women players forever

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir speaks at the Beyond Sport United Conference on July 27, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

The echo of the bounce still rings in my ears. The scent of a freshly waxed hardwood floor still lingers in my nose. The texture of the leather ball is still so familiar to my hands. I miss basketball.

Basketball showed me the world, taught me discipline, comforted me during adversity, and provided a foundation for my faith. I never imagined my world without it.

But in 2014, an international rule set by the global basketball federation, FIBA, forced me to consider life without basketball. It also forced me to make a choice no one should have to make: one between faith and sport.

This week, after years of campaigning, that damaging and discriminatory ban on my Muslim headcovering known as a hijab is over. This will allow millions of Muslim women to play the sport I love — and that they love. But the ban on wearing a religious headcovering never should have been implemented in the first place, and the delay in repealing it cost me and many other women years of playing.

I started playing basketball at age 4. I scored more points than anyone — male or female — in Massachusetts high school basketball history. After I graduated from high school in 2010, I became the first NCAA player to compete while wearing a hijab.

But when I wanted to keep playing after college, the international basketball federation known as FIBA claimed my hijab could cause injury to others and was a “safety” risk. I was suddenly forced to choose between basketball and my faith, two things I love.

I would lose a piece of myself either way it went; but which piece was most important?

Muslim born and raised, I felt bad even considering removing my hijab to play basketball. Would I take off my hijab and play, or would I stand firm against FIBA and its discriminatory “headgear” rule?

As a Muslim, connecting with God through prayer is how we navigate trying times. So, I prayed my way through the decision. These prayers felt different than the prayers I had made in the past. I was praying with a purpose. Things began to make sense. I reconnected with my true identity and realized that I am more than a basketball player; I could be a representative for every woman and girl who looks like me.

Former President Barack Obama plays basketball with Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir as he takes a tour of the exercise activities at the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House in Washington April 6, 2015. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

I realized I had a duty to stand up for myself and others; to use my voice to change the narrative around Islam and Muslims. Thus the battle against FIBA, the powerful basketball rule-setter, began.

FIBA held its position that we hijab-wearing players couldn’t be allowed on the court — despite more than 130,000 signatures on a petition calling for the ban to be overturned, countless articles and videos criticizing the discriminatory rule, and letters written directly to its president.  FIFA, the global soccer federation, had already changed its hijab rules in 2012, opening up play to millions of women and girls. FIBA eventually made a two-year provision to the rule, but with major hurdles.

I didn’t understand why removing the rule was so difficult. I have been swatted in the face by braids and ponytails, but for more than 10 years of playing, my hijab has never caused harm to me or any other players. The frustration built up, and at times, I was ready to surrender. However, in those moments, I received messages from Muslim girls aspiring to compete at the highest levels of basketball. Their words reminded me to push through.

I went from playing basketball every day to standing on podiums and stages in front of crowds of people. The microphone became my ball, the stage became my court, and the words I spoke became my stats. FIBA may have blocked my career, but it was not going to sideline Muslim women players forever.

Finally, after three lost seasons, help from human rights activists, countless interviews, and a letter of support from both male and female professional NBA and WNBA athletes, FIBA rescinded the rule in May and the change went into effect this week. In addition to Muslim women, Sikhs and Jews are now able to play in FIBA games while representing their faith.

Even though my career was prematurely and unfairly ended by FIBA’s headgear rule, I can proudly say I stood up for inclusion and helped change history. Without the patience I learned from basketball, prayer, and faith, I know that none of this would have been possible.

It’s time for Muslim women and girls to be accepted, welcomed and loved in all spaces and places. It’s important for everyone to know that this is all bigger than basketball.

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is a Muslim American basketball player and athletic director. The Life Without Basketball documentary film about Bilqis will be released in 2018. Watch the trailer here and follower her on Twitter here.


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