Hooping with Hijab

As women’s basketball booms around the world, devout Muslim players from Bosnia to the Bronx grapple with a blanket ban on headwear of any kind.

Hooping with Hijab

B o u n c e . B o u n c e . Elbow in. Knees bent. Sneakers planted. Her feet levitate, her arm extends over her veil, and not a single hair from her head invades the personal space of her eyes, nose or mouth. Her hand follows through as the touch of the rust-colored leather sphere flies from her fingertips.

It doesn’t merely fly — it soars — following the imaginary curve drawn by the great shooters of basketball legends past until it reaches its peak height. Then it falls and plummets perfectly through the circle.

S w i s h .

Fresh off her college career as the first player to rock the hijab while playing Division I basketball, twenty-four-year-old Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir has a degree in her hand and recently signed with an agent. The high school record holder for most points scored in the state of Massachusetts, Abdul-Qaadir was recruited for athletic scholarships by multiple colleges, and she played successfully at both the University of Memphis and Indiana State. Playing pro is simply the next logical step. She has hopes of signing with a team overseas to tip off her professional career in the game she has played since she was three. Abdul-Qaadir grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and has worn the hijab — the headscarf worn by Muslim women as a symbol of modesty — since age fifteen. All throughout high school and college, her hijab never gave her serious problems. On the contrary, her teammates and high school community were very supportive when she first played with her hair covered. But when Abdul-Qaadir opens an email from her agent, there is no news about potential teams — instead, her agent breaks the news that breaks Abdul-Qaadir’s heart.

Three thousand miles away from Massachusetts, on June 15, 2014, Indira Kaljo, a Bosnian-American baller who played for Tulane University and professionally overseas, officially makes her decision — she had it on her mind for a while, but now she is certain. Today, she commits to wearing the hijab, and she loves it. She’s happy. She feels closer to her faith, closer to her Islam.

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. (Photo by Rachel Keyes)
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. (Photo by Rachel Keyes)

There’s one thing though, that wrenches in her gut. Will the hijab interfere with her professional basketball career? Kaljo did not grow up wearing the headscarf, and she played a few seasons as a professional overseas before she decided to cover. She remembers her previous season in Bosnia, when she had to get approval for the tights she put on under her shorts, with the veiled excuse that her legs were cold. The referees gave her some flack, but eventually they allowed it. If tights on her legs — the same thing the basketball greats wear for protection in the elite National Basketball Association — were an issue, then her newly donned hijab could surely be one as well.

Kaljo musters up the courage to perform a Google search so she can satisfy her curiosity. Within seconds, she’s met with the same words that have crushed basketball dreams for Abdul-Qaadir and many others: Article 4.4.2 from the official rules of basketball’s international governing body, FIBA.

“Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players. The following are not permitted:

– Finger, hand, wrist, elbow or forearm guards, casts or braces made of leather, plastic, pliable (soft) plastic, metal or any other hard substance, even if covered with soft padding.

– Objects that could cut or cause abrasions (fingernails must be closely cut).

– Headgear, hair accessories and jewellery.”

“I kind of just cried once I found out,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “I didn’t even know if we could take action, trying to get the rule banned. At that point, I thought I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The rule requires a little bit of reading between the lines. The hijab is not expressly stated as disallowed. Neither are turbans or yarmulkes. But they all fall under that last bullet: “headgear.” That one word is responsible for shooting down the dream of professional ballerhood for any Muslim who wears a hijab, any Sikh who wears a turban or any Jew who wears a yarmulke. Although it was not put in place to ban followers of certain religions from the basketball court, it has nevertheless created a complicated love triangle that forces a range of players to choose between his or her two passions — faith and sport, lifestyle and career.

“I was in shock, because obviously, I was preparing…and I was looking forward to another season,” Kaljo, now twenty-seven, says. “It was like a moment of truth, like, what are you going to do? Are you not going to do anything about it or try to start some kind of petition? And automatically I knew I had to do something about it…so the feeling I had inside, somebody else wouldn’t feel it down the road.”

Hijab, a concept very often reduced to only the piece of fabric wrapped around the head of a Muslim woman, is much more than threads stitched together. It is a way of life for both men and women who adhere to the Islamic faith, and it extends far beyond the scope of apparel. Hijab is modesty in speech, behavior and thought. A person committed to hijab cannot simply remove the soft headscarf for the duration of a basketball game.

Yet, such is the suggestion players who sport their religious head coverings receive. Back in 2008, the Indonesian National Team recruited Raisa Aribatul Hamidah for their U-18 roster to compete at the Asia Championship. She happily accepted, only to discover the following day her headscarf was in violation of FIBA’s rules. She resigned from the team, as her hijab was something she could not sacrifice. Unlike Kaljo and Abdul-Qaadir, Hamidah has the opportunity to play professionally in her country, with the Women’s Indonesian Basketball League, as it is not governed by FIBA. More recently, Hamidah, now twenty-four, was again called to the national team, this time to compete in the Southeast Asia Games in June 2015. But those games, like the Asia Championship, are under FIBA’s regulations, and she would not be able to play with her hijab.

Indira Kaljo. (Courtesy of Indira Kaljo)
Indira Kaljo. (Courtesy of Indira Kaljo)

“This is my dream come true, void,” Hamidah writes. “I am optimistic. At least FIBA knows that I and a lot of people out there are demanding justice.”

Justice has yet to be served. After Abdul-Qaadir, Kaljo and Sikh players Amjyot and Amritpal Singh of the Indian National Team spread awareness of the matter through various media interviews, campaigns like Muslim Girls Hoop Too and multiple petitions on Change.org, FIBA revisited Article 4.4.2 late in the summer of 2014. In early September, headlines read: “FIBA Relaxes Rules on Hijab” and “FIBA Says Yes to Religious Headgear” — but the decision announced was not that simple.

The actual Article underwent no modifications. Rather, FIBA authorized a two-year trial period, which, according to the press release, consists of “relaxing the current rules regarding headgear in order to enable national federations to request…exceptions to be applied at the national level within their territory without incurring any sanctions for violation of FIBA’s Official Basketball Rules.” This means national federations can submit applications for players to compete within leagues in their territory and club competitions only. Players wearing such headgear would not be able to represent their country’s national team in international competitions. The problem is, for players like Kaljo and Abdul-Qaadir, FIBA’s modification came a little late.

Just two weeks after FIBA announced its trial period, the Qatari Women’s National Team had to forfeit their match at the Asia Games in South Korea. Many players on the roster wear hijab, and when arriving at the game, they were told to either take off their scarves or forfeit. Kaljo, who visited Qatar and met the players after the incident, said the team knew they would be denied the right to play because of Article 4.4.2. She says they tried to reach out to FIBA prior to the match via email, but they did not receive a response. Instead of giving up the fight, the Qatari team decided to show up at the game anyway.

“They knew they wouldn’t be able to play,” Kaljo says. “However, they still decided to send the message: We’re ready to play, we’re here, but you’re just not letting us.”

When asked about Article 4.4.2 and the related two-year trial period, a FIBA official insists the original rule does not intend to be a discriminatory ban on players of certain faiths. He describes FIBA as a global organization seeking to accommodate people from multiple backgrounds, faiths and lifestyles for the sake of sport. The lengthy testing period is an opportunity for FIBA to properly assess how lifting the ban entirely will impact the sport and the players. FIBA says the regulations are without any religious connotations.

While this may be true, many players around the world feel discriminated against, and their experiences cannot be ignored. These players demanded a change, and FIBA took a step to enact that change, although not as quickly as some hoped.

The message the Qatari Women’s National Team sent in South Korea last September is not only true for the hijab-clad women on their team, but for basketball players around the world. Hamidah in Indonesia is ready to represent her country. Abdul-Qaadir is ready to sign with a professional team. Kaljo is ready to do the same. The only thing these women are not ready to do is compromise their faith, their very personal decision to wear the headscarf, and their relationship with God.

B o u n c e . B o u n c e . “To see the basketball go through the net and hear that sound and the rhythm of you bouncing — it’s complete joy,” says Kaljo, who, with all the uncertainty surrounding her professional playing career, recently took a job with the Arabian International School in Taif, Saudi Arabia, where she teaches physical education to girls. “When you’re in that moment, you’re playing against a team, and you hit a game-winning shot or hit a shot that mattered, or even just sweating, running up and down…everything about it is fulfilling.”

S w i s h . “I want all women worldwide to be able to experience that at the highest level,” Kaljo says. “Represent their countries and be able to tell stories when they are eighty years old about how they played for their country, for the national team, wearing the hijab.”

That’s all any of them want — nothing but net, peace, and happiness with a ball in their hands and a scarf on their head. “Insha’Allah [God-willing], I feel like it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.”