Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir connects, inspires others as female Muslim American athlete

The hardest days for Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir were the days she spent wondering what could have been.

She’d sit in her childhood bedroom in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she was born and raised into a Muslim family and by Muslim parents. She’d stare at the trophies displayed across the room, remember how she first picked up a basketball at just four years old and challenged her seven older siblings on the court, how she’d set her alarm to 6:30 in the morning on Saturdays for youth basketball training.

It’s been two years since she’s played competitively, but for Abdul-Qaadir, basketball was pure love. It’s why she worked hard in high school and graduated as the school’s valedictorian while setting the Massachusetts state scoring record for both boys and girls with 3,070 points.

It’s why she was named the state’s 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American nominee, earning a full-ride scholarship to the University of Memphis.

It’s why, after finishing her time as a Tiger, she went back to the game in 2013, using her redshirted first season and added year of eligibility to play at Indiana State University in Terre Haute and lead the team in scoring.

It’s why everything was perfect, why her life was planned out. She’d move on to graduate school and play abroad. She hired an agent. She made an online basketball portfolio.

Then she got a call. It was her agent. She can’t play overseas, he tells her. It’s her head covering, he says, her hijab, the veil she wears as a Muslim woman.

The International Basketball Federation, FIBA, won’t allow it.

According to Article 4.4.2 in FIBA’s official rules, players are prohibited from wearing equipment that “may cause injury to players,” listing “headgear, hair accessories, and jewelry” among the objects.

“FIBA’s regulations apply on a global scale and without any religious connotation,” the federation said in a provided statement. “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 competition, the uniform regulations are of purely sporting nature and merely explain what can be worn.”

Abdul-Qaadir had long dominated the challenges she’d faced as a Muslim American woman. Call her out as wearing a towel, and she’d shrug. A doo rag? Nothing. Osama Bin Laden’s niece? Still unfazed.

But FIBA’s headgear ban suddenly presented Abdul-Qaadir with a reality she wasn’t prepared to face.

“I lost who I was in that moment,” Abdul-Qaadir recalled in a phone interview during her lunch break at Pleasant View School in Memphis, where she coaches and teaches as an athletic director and gym teacher, on a recent November afternoon. “Basketball was everything I had. Now I’m just like, ‘Am I anybody without basketball? Am I still myself?’”

So when her mind wanders to those days — days she describes as “the most devastating in her life,” days when she thought about giving up, days when she wonders if her battle with FIBA is worth it — she thinks about the love that brought her here, on this platform.

She thinks about those following the dream she once had. She thinks about giving them a better outcome.

“My story isn’t just about me anymore,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “This is bigger than me. This is bigger than basketball.”

***

Her story is about Muslim women who choose to cover in sports, a subject that’s garnered attention throughout the past decade. While Abdul-Qaadir’s battle with FIBA’s ban is recent, FIFA’s similar restriction in 2007 left Muslim female athletes like Shireen Ahmed seeking change for years.

Ahmed, a former University of Toronto soccer player and sports activist, had dreams similar to Abdul-Qaadir’s. She had played soccer since she was five and was ready to make her professional push in college.

Then she started wearing the hijab.

Her choice to cover fielded stares. She was questioned. Called out. Her teammates were “less than supportive.” Her coach dismissed her.

After university, Ahmed recalls registering for 25 organized and competitive games. She was only allowed to play in two. Referees denied her permission for the rest.

“I was hurt,” Ahmed said. “When you have something that’s an extrinsic part of your life and it’s suddenly ripped away from you, it’s really upsetting. I shouldn’t have had to choose between my Islam and my soccer. No one should have to choose between that.”

That’s when Ahmed, while playing pick up soccer in non-competitive leagues, started speaking out. She blogged and wrote, her work featured and discussed in Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Huffington Post and other public media.

She made speaking appearances, using her passion as motivation to those she addressed. She started coaching a middle school senior team in Toronto, fostering and encouraging a love for sports in young Muslim girls the way her love for soccer drives her today.

Then, in 2012, FIFA lifted its ban. The federation determined that the risks of sports injuries from turbans, hijabs and kippas were not significant and did not justify the rule. Players could cover their heads and still play.

Shireen Ahmed could finally go back to competing.

“I got that ball and I was like a kid in a candy store,” Ahmed said of her first game back. “I felt so important. My existence was validated in that moment.”

The battle isn’t over for Ahmed, who has since connected with Abdul-Qaadir to help petition against FIBA’s ban. She’ll still write, still speak, still coach, pushed not only by her own journey but that of Abdul-Qaadir’s as well.

She’ll continue to denounce FIBA’s excuses, thinking of her own daughter — who’s picked up both soccer and basketball — when hearing that hijab is a safety issue or threatens the game’s “religious neutrality.”

“No girl, regardless of what she chooses to wear or not to wear, should be told she can’t do something because of who she is and what makes her her,” Ahmed said. “If anyone thinks we’re going to accept being told what we can or cannot do, that’s bullshit.”

***

Fiyyaz Jaat met Abdul-Qaadir for the first time in September 2015.

It was the Islamic Society of North America’s 52nd annual convention, and the Youth Programming and Services Director was listening her address a crowd at a parallel track hosted by the Muslim Youth of North America.

He listened to her explain her love for basketball, share her biggest dreams, describe her hardest days. But unlike she did when she was first notified of the ban, Abdul-Qaadir didn’t end there.

“God took away something I loved to instill my love in my faith and put me on a platform to create change,” she said. “I make sure people wherever I go know that it’s time to break stereotypes and show people that Muslims and especially Muslim women can do whatever we put our minds to.”

Jaat knew then that her story was more than just a session, that her story was about breaking old cultural perspectives, the notion that Muslim women are discouraged from pursuing athletic competition.

Since then, Abdul-Qaadir has been the first example Jaat points to when encouraging parents to help their youth pursue their passion for sports. Jaat is a proponent of women in sports, emphasizing the greater message involvement like Abdul-Qaadir’s sends as a Muslim in America.

He voices that viewpoint at every youth conference or retreat he attends.

“This is about creating individuals who are well-rounded,” Jaat said. “When you see people like Abdul-Qaadir, you see people who are engaged civically, politically, socially and economically while also engaging with themselves physically and spiritually. Sports address both the internal part of self development and the external part of being well-rounded members of society.”

That message is one former competitive goalie Sarah Hassanein had to send her parents as her dream of playing professionally inched nearer.

Nicknamed “The Wall,” Hassanein, who’s been playing soccer in Toronto on various levels since she was nine, began receiving attention during her undergrad years in university.

Hassanein was used to being called out by referees for her hijab, told she couldn’t play because of her “hood,” but she didn’t expect the hesitation she received from her Egyptian parents as her career began to take shape.

“My parents supported me but at the same time had their reservations,” Hassanein said. “It’s sad that some Arab or South Asian or Muslim parents in general confuse culture with religion and end up discouraging their daughters from breaking the mold. If I’m not doing my religion wrong and disappointing God, words of culture don’t bother me, and that thought is definitely all culture.”

Hassanein’s parents quickly saw the benefits, however. Like Abdul-Qaadir, Hassanein found courage in her sport. She viewed her hijab as an opportunity, not a disadvantage, and that was an attitude the Hassaneins and Jaat alike stand behind.

“Sports figures are considered role models,” Jaat said. “People like Sarah, like Bilqis, they’re role models, and we have to be creating role models within our communities like them.”

While her competitive soccer days are over, Hassanein still believes she owes a large part of who she’s become to the sport. It forced her out of her comfort zone, she said, increased her faith in God.

And more than anything, it told her story, one that, like Abdul-Qaadir’s, was about more than soccer.

“I looked forward to getting on the field and kicking butt, but that did more than just win a game,” Hassanein said. “I got to show people that I’m skilled and teach people.

“I got to write my own narrative.”

***

Maram Fares doesn’t feel at home.

It’s the first day of track conditioning at Crown Point High school — a public school of about 3,000 in Northwest Indiana — and Fares, a junior, has started her fifth-straight year on a team.

She’s just completed her first 400-meter run. In the middle of a pant, a quiet laugh escapes her mouth. She points to her hijab flying around in the wind, falling off of her head, and notes that she’s lost a pin. She smiles.

“This is normal,” she said. “It’s been worse.”

She’s not wrong. In her years of running, Fares recalls being called out for competing in long shirts and pants. She’s often wished she were a different person all together so she could fit in with the rest of her teammates, her Muslim identity unknown to those around her.

Those feelings have only grown since November. Fares has seen the damage Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign — which preached plans of banning Muslims and outlawing immigrants into the country — has caused, recalling news of people who have been told to leave the country or threatened by local neighbors.

Suddenly, a country she felt at peace in was the source of her biggest worries.

“I love being Muslim, being able to represent my faith while running, but it’s a scary time,” Fares said. “I worry that my basic rights are going to be violated.”

It’s especially worrisome for players like Clay High School senior Zena Abdelrahman, who recently finished her first season of competitive soccer in South Bend, Indiana.

Abdelrahman had always wanted to play a sport but had been hesitant to play while wearing her hijab.

“I was scared and still am in some ways,” Abdelrahman said. “I’m thankful to have teammates I call family, but there’s a lot of hesitation when others see me. I grew up dreaming of playing soccer professionally, but I never saw myself actually doing it, and with the environment we live in now, it adds on to that idea that I won’t.”

That’s where stories like Abdul-Qaadir’s come in for Fares and Abdelrahman. When the scene of an Olympic stage dissipates from Fares’s mind, she recalls Abdul-Qaadir.

She reminds herself of Abdul-Qaadir’s struggles, her wins, her losses, and her message. She uses her as motivation. She looks up to her as a model Muslim American.

“Bilqis motivates me to keep going and try my hardest every day,” Fares said. “Representing my faith means believing in myself and working hard to earn my place. People are going to tell me I can’t do it, but I’m going to show them I can.”

***

Her story is about finding purpose, about redefining yourself after loss.

Abdul-Qaadir enters the gym, steps onto the basketball court. She still plays with friends. Sometimes it’s just her, the ball, and the net.

She’ll shoot a few throws, letting the ball sail from the free throw line. From the paint. From behind the arc. She’ll listen carefully for that swoosh, hear it, and smile.

“I can still play,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “That’s for sure.”

FIBA completed a two-year trial to assess the use of headgear in basketball in September, and the federation has since asked FIBA’s Technical Commission to review the results and recommend a next step.

If the opportunity to play comes in January, when FIBA is scheduled to release its decision on the ban following pressure from Abdul-Qaadir and others, she’s not yet sure if she actually will.

“It’s a tough decision,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “After a while, when you know an organization took this long to decide if it wants you or not, you start to wonder why you even want to be a part of it.”

Abdul-Qaadir pauses. What she’s thinking about, it’s hard to tell. Maybe it’s the trophies displayed across her room, her first day on the court at four years old. Maybe it’s the 6:30 training camps.

Maybe it’s her girls at Pleasant View, her conversations about change with Ahmed, her message to girls at Jaat’s youth conference, the girls like Fares and Abdelrahman following in her footsteps, following in their dreams.

Maybe it’s pure love. After all, that’s what kept her going all these years.

She inhales. Even the smell of a basketball court makes her emotional. She sighs.

“Just being on the court,” she said. “I miss it. I miss it for sure.”

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