Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is a former high school and collegiate basketball star. Among her achievements, she holds the all-time high school basketball scoring record in Massachusetts. She even played basketball with President Obama. Her dream to play professionally, however, was stalled by the International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA) ban on headgear. FIBA claims the hijab is an injury risk. Shirzanan interviewed Abdul-Qaadir on discrimination, spirituality, motivating young Muslim women and playing one-on-one with POTUS.
Let's begin with the FIBA ban on headgear. Article 4.4.2 of the FIBA rules states: "Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players. The following are not permitted: Headgear, hair accessories and jewellery." You competed for a combined 9 years of high school and college basketball. Was your hijab ever a source of injury to you or any other player?
No, my hijab never caused injury to me or any other player. I believe long hair extensions and braids are greater injury threats than a hijab. I’ve been hit in the eyes plenty of times and it is not a fun experience.
What was your reaction to learning about the ban?
I received a phone call from my agent one day. At that moment I didn’t think I had to give up my dream of playing. I had hope. After hearing FIBA’s reasons, I knew that it was a bigger issue than what I initially thought. I participated in some advocacy work early on by helping with the petition against FIBA and working with Council on American Islamic Relations.
I believe that the ban is based on discrimination. I wouldn’t expect that from an international organization and with the word ‘international’ in their name. It just doesn’t add up to me.
The petition was partially successful in FIBA relaxing the "no headgear" rule and instituting a two-year testing phase that began in September 2014. A full review will be conducted after the
Rio Olympics. If the ban is lifted, would you consider playing basketball overseas?
I would consider playing, but I am not sure. I moved on and learned to not look too far ahead. I take life day by day. Living like this avoids disappointment.
If FIBA doesn't lift the ban, Shirzanan has a "play book" written by the expert who led the successful challenge against the FIFA hijab ban. It states that a high profile advocate is absolutely critical. In their case regarding football, Prince Ali of Jordan led the charge. Perhaps President Obama would do the same for basketball. How did you come to shoot hoops with the leader of the free world?
It was all surreal. I first met President Obama at a Ramadan celebration dinner at the White House in September 2009. He suggested we play one-on-one if I ever made it back to the White House and he kept his word. I was invited back for the Easter Egg Roll in 2015 and we played H-O-R-S-E. I won, but his shot is pretty nice.
Mrs. Obama recently met with Olympic qualifier, Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Western media predominantly emphasize her history-making turn wearing hijab for USA rather than her athletic merit. Do you think Muslim girls need to see images and read stories about hijab-wearing athletes?
Yes, I think it’s good for the girls who wear hijab to see women wearing hijab breaking barriers. For girls to realize there are other girls and women out there sharing the same dreams, or facing the same struggles, media coverage can give them that boost of motivation to stay true to themselves and keep striving or fighting.
Tell us more about what you're doing now with regard to sports.
I earned a Master of Science degree in Physical Education and Coaching in 2015. I am currently an athletic director and physical education instructor at an Islamic private school called Pleasant View in Memphis, Tennessee. I'm also developing Muslim Girls Hoop Too into a non-profit organization to support both domestic and international travel excursions to encourage kids in physical activity and sports.
As an instructor and in your motivational talks, what are your core messages?
The core elements of my motivational messages involve my basketball history and career, my personal struggles and trials, and spirituality.
Some personal struggles included holding onto my faith and beliefs while in college, fighting the pressures of fitting into college life, and facing doubts about continuing to wear my hijab after finding out I couldn’t play with it.
At the school, most girls express their fear of wearing hijab on a daily basis, not just in sports. I remind them of who we actually wear it for. It’s not for the people around us, it’s for God. Most of the girls I speak to play soccer. I'm not sure of their sports role models, but some do mention me and Ibtihaj Muhammad.
What is the most rewarding aspect to working with the girls?
The most rewarding part is seeing them grow - mentally, physically, and, most importantly, spiritually. I look up to them in so many ways because when I was their ages (10-13 years), being a covering Muslim woman or young girl wasn't as hard as it is to be one now.
Yet, you encountered negative comments and behavior aimed at you during your basketball days.
How did you handle those situations?
I remember playing in a high school game, taking the ball out of bounds right in front of the fan section when one of the kids yelled, "You look like Osama Bin Laden's niece!" Another instance was in a college game while shooting a free throw, and in dead silence, a kid yelled that I had a "du-rag" on my head. Those situations didn't affect me in any way, particularly not my focus. If anything, they made me play that much harder and believe in myself that much more.
Bilqis poses with Women's Basketball Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo Rushin, the Massachusetts native whose 18-year-old basketball scoring record Bilqis surpassed in 2009 with 3,070 career points and, seven years later, in June 2016.
You certainly were focused and in 2009, you not only broke an 18-year-old Massachusetts high school scoring record held by Hall of Famer Rebecca Lobo, but also graduated as valedictorian. You also graduated Magna Cum Laude from University of Memphis. Can you compare the achievements and speak to the idea of balancing academics and sports?
I was homeschooled by my mother until 8th grade. She was a tough and great teacher. The importance of academics was embedded very early on. I remember my mother always telling me, "We can't afford college, so if basketball won't get you a scholarship, academics should." That was my motivation during my high school career.
What do you tell parents who are reluctant to allow their Muslim daughters to play sports?
God blessed us all with certain talents and abilities. If a person is blessed enough to discover whatever those talents or abilities are, then I believe they shouldn’t be wasted. Parents have to empathize and think about the things they wanted to do as a child or teen and remember how it felt if their parents put restrictions on their aspirations or dreams.
What are the conditions for Muslim American female athletes these days?
I see a huge increase in Muslim female athletes taking up sports. After my story of being banned from basketball because of hijab went viral, I felt it catalyzed attention on Muslim female athletes in all sports, not just basketball. The challenge that still remains is discrimination. We still aren’t all allowed to do what we want. Until that happens across the board, there will still be challenges.
Any thoughts regarding the presidential election and anti-Muslim sentiment?
I try to stay out of the news and politics. I’m just staying in my lane and trying to uplift and inspire whoever I cross paths with, both Muslim and non-Muslim. It’s too exhausting to keep defending our Islam to people who may never understand.
You're featured in a documentary film. Is it finished or are you waiting for the FIBA ban decision as a possible happy ending?
It's called "Life Without Basketball" and it's ongoing...
UPDATE: Bilqis has joined a movement started by Indira Kaljo to petition FIBA President Horacio Muratore to allow hijab.
Please read and share the petitions of each basketball player calling to overturn the ban on headgear (including turbans for Sikh and yarmulkes for Jewish players).
SIGN PETITION FOR FIBA TO ALLOW HIJAB