Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, wishes that FIBA would catch up to FIFA
It was the spring of 2014 and Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir had just capped off her college basketball career by leading Indiana State in scoring.
While moving on to graduate school, Abdul-Qaadir’s plan was to play abroad, and she was already taking the next steps to make it happen. She hired an agent, made an online basketball profile and was excited for the next stage of her life. After setting the high school career scoring record for Massachusetts, her dream of playing professionally was in sight.
And then the dream was crushed.
Abdul-Qaadir’s agent told her of FIBA’s headgear policy, which would prevent her from playing in the FIBA-run professional leagues she had been targeting, because the Muslim Abdul-Qaadir wears a hijab.
“It kind of broke my heart,” said Abdul-Qaadir, 24. “I was that close to the dream and then just because of my religious beliefs or something that I wore was going to stop me from playing.”
The policy doesn’t just ban hijabs but all headgear more than five centimeters in width. That means athletes around the world who wear turbans or yarmulkes are also prevented from participating.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with safety hazards or just a piece of material, I think it’s the fact of what I’m representing,” said Abdul-Qaadir, who now travels the country raising awareness of the ban. “They don’t want that affiliated with their organization.”
But after FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, lifted its headgear ban in 2014, FIBA enacted a two-year trial beginning last September that allowed basketball players to play with headgear. But FIBA’s allowance applies only at the national level, and only if a player or team’s national federation has submitted a request to FIBA.
Only a week after the FIBA trial period began, members of the Qatar women’s national team had to withdraw from an international competition, the Asian Games in South Korea, because they refused to remove their hijabs.
USA Basketball CEO and FIBA central board member Jim Tooley told USA TODAY Sports that FIBA would be gathering information during the course of the trial for a report that would be evaluated after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He said the study was focusing on whether all modifications to uniform pose safety issues, threaten the look and feel of the uniform or impede or enhance the sport in other countries.
Though he noted that USA Basketball has received no request to wear head gear, when asked if the policy limits the opportunities of athletes of certain faiths, he said, “I’m not certain it does or it doesn’t. We have not had that issue here in the United States, and I don’t want to speak to the issues that Muslim countries have experienced.”
For Abdul-Qaadir, who was born in Springfield, Mass., the ban creates many barriers. The policy restricts her from playing in leagues abroad, and even if she had the ability to play for Team USA, she wouldn’t be able to wear her hijab because the team participates in international competitions.
Ibtihaj Muhammad, a sabre fencer training for the 2016 Olympics and a hijab wearer, said the requirement that federations make requests on behalf of athletes was an added insult to athletes of Muslim faith.
“That reminds of me of middle school and high school where my parents had to submit an official letter from the religious head from our local mosque,” Muhammad said. “We would have to get like a local Imam to sign a letter my parents drafted that said I was wearing my headscarf for religious reasons.
“It’s a little frustrating that you have to, not only be different, but explain why we’re different and then from there explain to the governing body okay, now it’s OK for you to be different to still play sports.”
FIBA, however, is adamant the rule has never had anything to do with religion.
“FIBA regulations apply on a global scale and without any religious connotation,” read a statement provided to USA Today Sports. “While certain groups have interpreted the provisions of the Official Basketball Rules on uniforms as a ban against the participation of players of certain faiths in basketball competitions, the uniform regulations are of a purely sporting nature.”
But Abdul-Qaadir can’t see how something like a hijab could ever be a threat to another player’s safety.
“I don’t even drape it around my neck when I play, it’s tied up in the back and I’ve never caused injury to myself or anybody else for the 10-plus years that I’ve been playing covered,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “For them to say it’s a safety hazard, nowadays women are getting extensions and I’ve been slapped in the face by braids plenty of times. So I’m playing with my hair tied up, tight, it just doesn’t make sense.”
When asked whether a headscarf specifically was a safety concern, Tooley said, “I don’t know. That’s what FIBA has come out and said. Jewelry, if someone wants to wear a cross around their neck, you can’t do that because it’s a safety issue. I’m not aware of what safety issues there could be.”
According to Shireen Ahmed, a former University of Toronto soccer player and sports activist who has written about headgear bans for Vice.com, the path has been laid for FIBA to put an end to the ban.
She said that when FIFA ended its headgear ban, the organization provided an outline for how the change would come into effect. She has yet to see any outline or goals for FIBA’s two-year trial.
The end to FIFA’s ban was also led by an executive committee member, Prince Ali bin Hussein of Jordan, who wanted to make sure the Jordanian national team would be able to play soccer internationally. She said FIBA might see a significant change to its ban if it had someone that high ranking leading the way in the basketball association. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone as motivated for the cause.
“It doesn’t impact them on a financial level,” Ahmed said of FIFA.
When Ahmed thinks about Abdul-Qaadir’s struggle, she thinks of her own daughter who has taken up soccer and basketball. She hopes to one day play in college, but that could be as far as the sport takes her.
“It’s almost like for her, the choice has already been made,” Ahmed said. “If she chooses to wear a headscarf, there’s no point in going forward with basketball because there will be nowhere to go.”