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Banned From Basketball: Why the NCAA’s First Veiled Muslim Woman Can’t Play Pro

Banned From Basketball: Why the NCAA’s First Veiled Muslim Woman Can’t Play Pro

When Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir plays basketball, she worries about nothing. “It takes me out of real life,” she said. The irony is that in real life basketball bans Bilqis from pursuing her worry-free living and dream.

Why?

Because she made history in 2010 as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s first female Muslim basketball player who wears the hijab.

Photo cred: Rachel Keyes
Photo cred: Rachel Keyes

After graduating college with unprecedented academic records and basketball scores, Bilqis had to put an end to her career. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) has a policy banning players from wearing headgear including religious attire for “safety” reasons. Bilqis petitioned FIBA for allowing her, and others, to continue to play the sport they love. Yet the federation keeps postponing taking any decision in this matter crushing the dreams of Bilqis and her peers.

In an exclusive interview with MuslimGirl.com, Bilqis spoke candidly about her faith, identity and basketball aspirations. We also spoke with Jon Mercer and Tim O’Donnell from Pixela Pictura about the documentary “Life Without Basketball.” It is a film currently in production about Bilqis’ struggle with her faith and identity as a Muslim American in the face of FIBA’s ruling.

Basketball, hijab, identity and Islam

Bilqis, 25, was born into the game. The first thing she heard when she arrived into this world were whistles and balls bouncing around. Her passion to practice started at the age of four. “I have three brothers and four sisters. All my brothers played basketball and two of my sisters played too. I am the youngest and so the talent was there from the start. It became a passion. Basketball is my first love,” she said, with a grin.

But the sport became more than just a practice for Bilqis. It became a support system in a lot of situations. “It helped me stay grounded,” she said. 

Photo cred: Rachel Keyes
Photo cred: Rachel Keyes
Being a Muslim woman and wearing the hijab was a complete life changing experience for her. Bilqis’ parents converted to Islam and so she learned everything about religion from them — especially her mother.
No one in the family pressured her to wear the hijab, “but I knew that if I did, it would make my mother happy,” she added. “I was doing it because I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wanted to make her feel proud. Sorry I’m getting a little emotional,” Bilqis stated, holding her tears back.

The first time she wore the hijab was as a freshman in high school. But when she started playing basketball and stepped in the court, it wasn’t about her looking different. “It was me wanting to help my teammates win the game so I felt most comfortable in the court even though I had tons of clothes on,” Bilqis said. 

Once she graduated and could no longer pursue her career professionally due to the ban, she faced the dilemma of her life.

She earned her bachelor’s in exercise science, health and human performance from the University of Memphis, where she spent three years. Then she transferred to Indiana State University, played one year and graduated with her master’s degree in physical education. She became well known in her community as the Muslim basketball player. But once she graduated and could no longer pursue her career professionally due to the ban, she faced the dilemma of her life.

“When I couldn’t play basketball, I had an identity crisis. For my whole life I was known as the Muslim basketball player and when it was taken away suddenly I was only Muslim. I started questioning myself: am I really a Muslim? Am I doing it the right way?” she said.

This crisis sent Bilqis on a journey to rediscover Islam and her relationship with Allah. As a young Muslim woman and throughout college, she had to do a lot of social balancing and she admitted that she failed at a lot in making the right decisions.

“I didn’t love Islam until Allah took away basketball and I think it happened for a reason. I found the love for my religion,” Bilqis said. After college, she was ready to get a contract and go overseas to play. It was the pinnacle of her dreams. “I know Allah is the best of planners and now that I look back I know this happened for a reason. It happened so that I could embrace what I should have embraced since day one…I didn’t have a chance to fall in love with Islam. Subhan’Allah. I finally had it. When I think about it, I could never forget how I physically felt something different,” she said.   

Bilqis is currently the Athletic Director at Pleasant View School in Memphis, Tenn. She teaches pre-kindergarten to high school. Some of her students used to attend her games when she used to play. After graduating, she visited the school to speak a few times. She loves being part of this community to inspire young athletes. 

“You’d expect an international organization to accept people from all faiths, from all backgrounds whatever the case maybe. FIBA is delaying the decision to lift the ban until the end of 2016. It’s frustrating.” -Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir

“These kids think I’m a superstar. They have this respect for me. I say to myself Qisi (sorry that’s my nickname) you can’t mess up because all these young girls are watching you. They help me want to be a better person, better Muslim,” she stated with so much pride.

It warms Bilqis’ heart to see young Muslim women who are both passionate about and good at playing basketball. “I tell them I will open a door for you just keep practicing. Don’t think ahead. That’s one thing I had to learn not to think too far ahead. To live in the present and do what you need to do. I always tell them don’t worry about the future, that’s what prayers for,” she said.

FIBA’s controversial ban

In 2014, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) both pressured FIBA on behalf of Bilqis and other female Muslim athletes to modify their policy and allow them to compete. Motto reported that these efforts persuaded FIBA to approve a two-year provisional period permitting athletes to wear religious headgear while it weighed whether to revise its policies. This temporary allowance has only been applicable to competitions at the national level, and only after the national federation submits a formal, written request to FIBA.

Sharing her thoughts about the ban – especially now that Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab – Bilqis said that she thinks it is a clear case of discrimination. “I honestly believe it’s discrimination. I’ve met Ibtihaj and I live through her. You see Ibtihaj and think this is America. You’d expect an international organization to accept people from all faiths, from all backgrounds whatever the case maybe. FIBA is delaying the decision to lift the ban until the end of 2016. It’s frustrating,” Bilqis said.

The reasoning behind the hijab ban is that FIBA has long prohibited athletes from wearing “equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players,” reported the Huffington Post. “For some reason, FIBA deems hijab to fall into that category, but a growing body of athletes and advocacy organizations are working to change that.”

Created by: Esther Wallace
Created by: Esther Wallace
On August 9, 2016, CAIR called on FIBA to permanently lift the basketball hijab ban.

“We call on the International Basketball Federation to end the uncertainty on this issue by permanently lifting the ban on hijab and on other religious attire wore by athletes,” said CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper. “The only determining factors for athletic participation should be skill and hard work, not what is worn on one’s head.”

CAIR’s spokeswoman Dr. Zainab Chaudry stated, “We urge FIBA to do the right thing: To block bigotry, defend religious freedom and lift the ban on religious headgear. Pulling these principled, gifted basketball stars from the bench into the game is guaranteed to be a slam dunk move.”

“Life Without Basketball”

Filmmakers and directors Jon Mercer and Tim O’Donnell from Pixela Pictura, Cambridge, Mass., heard about Bilqis’ story and wanted to document it. Observing herself through the camera’s lens for the past 18 months, Bilqis reflects on her journey saying, “When you’re going through something you don’t think of it as a big of a deal. You just deal with it. I feel I have evolved from the time I couldn’t play to now during the process of filming. There’s so much personal and spiritual growth.”

“As a Muslim woman, I want others to not let anything stop them from pursuing their dreams; not even their hijab. I just hope it changes our image and stereotypes. It seems to be ongoing no matter how we try to break barriers.” -Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir

Although it is difficult for Bilqis to share her personal feelings, filming enabled her to be vulnerable about her basketball experience that led her to question her faith and identity. “It has been almost two years since the beginning of filming. They got me at my lowest of low and highest of high. I’m like two different people in that film…It was good for me to express the things I expressed in that film. I just wish it could be an inspiration to somebody else. Someone going through something totally different, but still feel where I’m coming from and the pain I was feeling,” she said.

Bilqis hopes that “Life Without Basketball” will achieve something beneficial once it is released. She believes it could change how Muslim women are portrayed all over the world and not just in American society. “I hope it reaches places outside the U.S.

As a Muslim woman, I want others to not let anything stop them from pursuing their dreams; not even their hijab. I just hope it changes our image and stereotypes. It seems to be ongoing no matter how we try to break barriers,” she said.

To learn more about the documentary, MuslimGirl.com spoke to the producers Tim O’Donnell and Jon Mercer. Here’s what they have to say about “Life Without Basketball”, which is still in production.


MuslimGirl: What inspired you to capture Bilqis’ struggle with her faith, identity and basketball – especially since the current political climate for Muslim women in the United States is hostile? What is the story you want to tell? 

Tim O’Donnell: This is an extremely important time for Bilqis’s story to reach as many people as possible. Bilqis is an amazing person and she has inspired us, and so many more and we can’t wait to bring this film to the world. Both of us were former athletes and understand how a sport can shape, influence, and help a life.

The fact that Bilqis cannot play because of her hijab is one of the saddest realities we have ever heard of, but we know that this ruling is simply one piece of a much larger world of injustice. We have been working on this film for 20 months and our motivation comes from the current state of the world.

We believe this story is a way in for a much larger audience to gain understanding and acceptance.

Jon Mercer: I think when we first started this story almost two years ago we both felt like it was the right time to be taking on some of the issues at the center of the film. I don’t think either one of us expected that all this time later these issues would be even more pressing. Since production started we’ve watched movements like Black Lives Matter begin a new conversation about civil rights, we’ve watch the rise of ISIS and additionally the rise of fear based reporting, and then we get to the current political climate.

The story we want to tell amid all of this though is that although Bilqis is exceptional in many ways and faces exceptional challenges, at the root of it, her story is an American one and shares more commonalities than might be expected.

We’re also hoping to move the conversation regarding FIBA away from just a simple –will she or won’t she play — and into a more nuanced conversation about what the mere presence of a rule like this does to a person. How does it impact other areas of their life? What can we learn from their choices?

Bilqis said that throughout her two years of filming she had grown spiritually in many ways. Could you please share some highlights through the lens of documenting her experiences?

TO: What would happen to you if you had to choose between your religion or a sport you have been playing your entire life?

It’s a theoretical question most never get to actually experience. It’s got to be one of the darkest and saddest moments of someone’s life – to have to choose between the two biggest things in your life. We saw Bilqis become closer to the Muslim community throughout this dark time. She was questioning a lot of things, people, and choices in her life and we think that only strengthened her spirituality.

Some of the biggest obstacles and trying times can only strengthen someone like Bilqis. It was an amazing experience getting to watch Bilqis through this time. 

“The fact that Bilqis cannot play because of her hijab is one of the saddest realities we have ever heard of, but we know that this ruling is simply one piece of a much larger world of injustice.”

JM: We’re both feeling privileged for the openness with which Bilqis has shared her growth with us along the way. My feeling is that these two years were really a chance for her to evaluate the words and principles she was brought up believing and to really take ownership of them for herself, to strengthen her identity and faith.

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I think that is an important test for anyone, even outside of a religious context — are you really living the values you say you are?

What was your general perception of Muslim American women prior to filming? In what ways did filming Bilqis change that perception? 

 TO: It was amazing getting to know the Muslim community the last two years. Our intent with the beginning of this film was to focus on Bilqis and her immediate family, but because of the type of people they are we got introduced and integrated with so many Muslim communities across the country.

A lot of times when you walk into a foreign place and you’re hold big cameras, you’re not exactly welcomed with open arms. It was so cool to not only be welcomed so warmly but also a lot of Muslim women asking us if we had any questions or needed help in any way.

We even got invited to sit in on a Muslim Women’s only group at the ISNA conference this past year. We heard some really insightful stories from Muslim women all across the country.

As Caucasian men, we didn’t have too much insight into what it was like to be a Muslim woman in America. Through Bilqis’s journey we widened our view and gained invaluable insight has forever changed our own personal perspectives. 

JM: What I’ve learned over the course of making this film is that if you’re assuming you know anything about Muslim women as a whole, at some point you’re going to be wrong.

Documentary filmmaking puts you in this position where you’re asking questions, but the majority of it is just listening. It’s been great to be welcomed into spaces where we normally might not be and leaving room for people to tell us what matters to them personally.

I think most athletes have this divide between life on and off the court and Bilqis is no exception. I think if viewers are coming into the film with a preconceived notion they’ll be walking away with some unexpected moments. 

Do you think once the documentary is out, FIBA might reconsider the ban and allow Muslim women to participate – especially now that Ibtihaj Muhammad just made U.S. history in the Olympics? 

 TO: We hope so – but in reality, the bigger picture is the one that’s happening right now – you writing this article, the petition to change the rule, social media posts and outcries, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Bilqis, and so many more.

The more flooded the media becomes with these stories and outcries, the more of a chance they will finally listen.

“A lot of times when you walk into a foreign place and you’re hold big cameras, you’re not exactly welcomed with open arms. It was so cool to not only be welcomed so warmly but also a lot of Muslim women asking us if we had any questions or needed help in any way.”

JM: We’re honestly hoping the rule changes before the film is out. The film is still a ways from being completed — but with FIBA originally set to review the rule this month, we felt like we needed to come out early with the trailer.

It’s just too important an issue to stick to a traditional release schedule. It feels like there has been some momentum with all the Olympic coverage that’s been happening. We’re hopeful it’s enough pressure to enact a change.

Muslim Girls Hoop Too

Bilqis is an exceptional young Muslim woman. In high school, she scored more than 3,000 points breaking both male and female scoring records in Massachusetts.

She was named 2009 Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year as she averaged 42 points per game as a senior. President Barak Obama invited her twice to the White House and said she was a role model not just for Muslim women, but for all young women.

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
She didn’t allow her struggle with the basketball ban to define her. In fact, the struggle became her cause that fueled her activism in defending her dreams. She founded Muslim Girls Hoop Too to raise awareness and educate others, to share  people’s stories and to promote religious equality.

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Her ultimate goal is to inspire young women. “This is the perfect time to truly be yourself and represent who we are as Muslims. I know that the biggest thing with Muslim women right now is hijab, the biggest controversy. I just say think about what Allah would want,” she said.

“Our hijab is something that makes us stick out; we’re the backbone of our deen. Without us, men couldn’t do what they’re supposed to do. As Muslim women, we have to be the strong ones, represent and create the change we aspire to,” she said.

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