‘This is discrimination’: Top athletes demand an immediate end to hijab ban in basketball

“This policy only serves to limit the sport.”

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir CREDIT: Photo provided by Athlete Ally
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir CREDIT: Photo provided by Athlete Ally

Three years ago, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was just like most top college athletes — preparing for graduation and actively exploring ways to extend her playing career. The University of Memphis basketball star tried out for the WNBA, but she knew that a much more realistic option for her would be to sign with a professional basketball team in Europe.

Unfortunately, her pro dreams were thwarted before they began when Abdul-Qaadir’s agent informed her that FIBA, the international body governing basketball, did not allow women to play sanctioned events while wearing religious headgear. That meant if she wanted to play play, she had to take off her hijab.

That wasn’t a satisfactory option for Abdul-Qaadir. And so, for the past three years, she’s fought publicly to get FIBA to overturn their ban.

At long last, she’s not fighting alone.

On Wednesday, advocacy organizations Athlete Ally and Shirzanan published an open letter demanding that FIBA “defend religious freedom and immediately lift the ban on religious headgear” when the organization holds meetings this weekend.

Requiring athletes to choose between their faith and their sport is counter to everything for which sport stands.

FIBA’s non-discrimination policy states that it, “does not tolerate any form of discrimination.” So long as the ban on religious headgear remains, millions of Muslim girls and women from the around the world will be denied the access, opportunity, and experience of basketball. This is discrimination but it can easily be remedied.

Forty-eight athletes and executives signed their names to the letter along with Abdul-Qaadir. Among those lending support are prominent Muslim athletes such as Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and former NFL players Hamza and Husain Abdullah; tennis legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova; and 14 WNBA players, including Breanna Stewart and Tina Charles.

“One of the things that has become really important to Athlete Ally is to make sure that it’s intersectional,” Executive Director Hudson Taylor said. “We can’t fight against one injustice without fighting against all injustices.”

Abdul-Qaadir told ThinkProgress that she was beginning to give up hope that change would ever come, but that the support from her fellow athletes was making her optimistic again.

“It means very much,” she said. “We’ve needed this support since day one, but better late than never.”

When Abdul-Qaadir first found out about FIBA’s ban, she never imagined the fight to overturn it would last this long. After all, FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, had overturned a similar ban in 2012; and in high school and college, getting approval to wear her hijab was as simple as Abdul-Qaadir writing a letter to top officials explaining that she was wearing it for religious reasons. Beyond the occasional ignorant remark from a competitor, it was never an issue beyond that.

But when she wrote a similar letter to FIBA, she received a surprising response — the organization said her request was denied because it wanted to keep the game of basketball “religiously neutral.” When she pushed back by pointing out how many players sported religious tattoos, they said that the ban was actually in place because of concerns over safety.

As Shireen Ahmed wrote for The Guardian, “there is no record of a basketball player being injured by a hijab, yarmulke or a turban during play, anywhere in the world.”

In 2014, FIBA announced what seemed like good news, and instituted a two-year trial period for athletes wearing head coverings. But the policy was unspecific, confusing, and far too restrictive to accommodate most players. Plus, it’s still going; FIBA’s 2016 meetings came and went without addressing the issue.

Athlete Ally, an organization primarily known for fighting homophobia in sports, decided to get involved in the fight last fall when they heard about FIBA ignoring the deadline.

“One of the things that has become really important to Athlete Ally is to make sure that it’s intersectional,” Executive Director Hudson Taylor said. “We can’t fight against one injustice without fighting against all injustices.”

“We can’t fight against one injustice without fighting against all injustices.”

Abdul-Qaadir has felt overwhelmed by the current political climate, particularly due to the Islamophobia fueled by President Donald Trump. She coaches a Muslim girls’ basketball team that participates in an interfaith, but predominately Christian, league — and recently, before a game, the referee started to lecture her players about why what they believe in is a sin.

As devastating as that was to witness, it was also yet another reminder of why this fight is so important to Abdul-Qaadir and Muslim women everywhere.

“This is a bigger issue, it’s not about basketball anymore,” she said, noting that she’s using her platform to challenge misconceptions about Muslim women. “I use this to clear up stereotypes.”

Taylor believes the increase of Trump-inspired hate crimes is part of the reason why so many Athlete Ally athletes wanted to join this cause; right now, he says it’s important for marginalized communities to stick together and fight for inclusivity for all.

Abdul-Qaadir just hopes this publicity finally get this ban reversal over the finish line.

“At this point, I’m over this discussion,” she said. “Go ahead and do this, break this wall down so that everyone’s included.”