A Call to Equality: Bigger than Basketball.

What is it that you love about sport?

Is it the speed, the agility, the strength, the dedication? Or maybe it’s the excitement, the unknown, the ebbs and flows, the final outcome? Perhaps it’s the admiration you have for your favourite tennis player, the feeling of acceptance and community you find in supporting a team or that same feeling you get playing on a team?

Whatever the reason you have for the love of sport, it is a reason that connects you to many like-minded and passionate people in the world.

Each day TVs are turned on and sport enters the homes of the world’s population. Who is this population? Well, there’s the leisurely viewers, the fair-weather fans, the glory hunters, the die hards . . .

Likewise, each day sports venues are full to the brim with people participating in sport. Who are these people? Well, they follow much the same pattern as the sports viewers, from the leisurely participant, to the semi-professional athlete to the full time professional sports person . . .

No matter where you identify within this list, one thing that connects us all is the passion and enjoyment we all have within our chosen sports. Hands up if you’ve shed a quiet little tear, in the safety of your own living room of course – after all, how unBritish of us to show that little tear in public – after witnessing a winning backhand down the line for the underdog player with the odds stacked against her or a corner three buzzer beater that produces the fairy tale ending for the Cinderella team?! It’s a dream, it’s a tale from a storybook, it’s a Hollywood blockbuster. And the beautiful thing is, it is all of these things because in actual fact behind all of these facades it really is real life.

‘Glory Road’, an American sports film, released in 2006, tells the real life story of the struggle of the African American basketball player trying to break into NCAA college basketball.

‘Remember the Titans’ is another American sports film, released in 2000, which depicts the same real life struggle in relation to American Football.

What do these two and so many other similar movies have in common?

Well for one, all the things I love about a good sports movie – a struggle for equality; a coming of age of people, young and old, whose eyes are opened to the beauty of diversity; the purity in the fight of people from different walks of life uniting to break down long standing barriers, using sport as their vehicle.

But whilst these movies are emotive representations of the success sport has had in uniting and overcoming, we mustn’t let them lull us into a false sense of security. The successes they depict are only a tiny droplet in an enormous ocean of inequalities that so many people face in their lives, day in, day out. To quote President Obama in his farewell speech, “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society . . .we’re not where we need to be and all of us have more work to do.”

Just tonight, I was reminded of further inequalities that are “a very potent and divisive force in our society” today. The events and decisions of the past year that have and will continue to shape our world have highlighted to me just how much “more work” we all have to do with regards to these “divisive forces”.

Whilst I was sat in my club’s basketball arena, strategically located in an inner city area of Nottingham, I was joined by one of the club’s trustees – a Muslim man with whom I share a lot of similar beliefs and passions. We began talking about an exciting proposition I had been offered earlier in the day – a chance to be part of a documentary that challenges negative views towards cultural diversity in Britain. As we were talking, putting the world to rights – as often happens on the bleachers at the Wildcats’ Arena – I was once again reminded of how privileged I have been to be surrounded by a wealth of cultures, languages, religions and races my whole life – one of the reasons for my love of sport.

However, I was also reminded that so many other people in the world have not been as lucky to grow up in such a rich environment. Whilst this does not always affect people in a negative way, I believe it can often narrow a person’s field of understanding and perception. Recently, I have become increasingly worried that these chains of ignorance will shackle our future generations. For in the world right now, we seem to be building barriers, limiting opportunities for cultural diversity and stunting the growth of tolerance, inclusivity and understanding. For me, the most worrying thing is that we are not open minded enough to always consider all parties in decisions we make, actions we take and in the things we say. This quiet ignorance and often complete obliviousness can lead to our inability to think and act inclusively and in my opinion is an issue that needs addressing on a worldwide scale. We must seek opportunities to educate and enlighten. We must find ways of challenging ignorance in a productive and progressive way. Sometimes this task can seem overwhelming and in today’s climate I can struggle to see how society is holding on to those important values I grew up with. But as often happens, when you are feeling overwhelmed, the world presents you with a chink of light, an opportunity. This time, my chink of light was presented to me by my Muslim friend.

He told me a story he had heard in the news about a female Muslim basketball player in America by the name of Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. If you haven’t heard her story yet, Bilqis is a very talented basketball player trying to play her sport at the professional level in Europe. The reason I say ‘trying to’ is because she hasn’t yet achieved her dream.

Bilqis is the all-time leading scorer in Massachusetts’ history for High School Basketball (male or female). She earned a full athletic scholarship to NCAA Division 1 University of Memphis, where she stayed for 4 years, before transferring to Indiana State to complete her final year of eligibility. Whilst there, she led her team to a conference title. This is only a snapshot of Bilqis’ achievements but it must have you wondering why she is merely ‘trying’ to sign a contract with a European team and not signed one and began playing in a new club somewhere.

But there is one statistic I left out.

In 2010, she also became the first NCAA Division 1 basketball player to play while wearing a hijab.

And therein lies the reason Bilqis continues to ‘try’ to play overseas. The governing body for basketball in Europe, FIBA, have a rule that outlaws wearing a hijab during a basketball game. Their argument is based on ‘religious neutrality’ and ‘safety’. So here it is again. The stunted ideals of regressive societal values and plain ignorance rear its ugly head.

Article 4.4.2 (the article that contains the ban on ‘headwear’) does not allow for players to wear a headband that is bigger than 5cm in width, which inadvertently rules out the hijab. What I am not saying is that FIBA have deliberately written a rule in order to discriminate against groups of players who follow particular religions because of what they wear. However, I do believe it is a major oversight to have written a rule that is not inclusive of all players, especially without the suggestion of any alternative headwear that would be acceptable to both FIBA and the players this rule inhibits. It goes back to my earlier worries of thinking and acting without the foresight to be inclusive.

This rule is not only not inclusive of the hijab but also of turbans and yarmulkes. Therefore it also narrows male participation as well as female. Although I am of course sympathetic to the male demographic that has been excluded by article 4.4.2, as a woman in sport myself I am greatly concerned that female participation is affected by this ruling. As females in sport we always have and continue to struggle for equality and a ruling that makes it only more difficult for a group of women to play my sport is hugely disappointing to me.

More importantly, the misunderstood opinions of too many towards Islam and its traditions mean that the religion has suffered enough. As a society we must take actions to educate and enlighten these misunderstandings but also when an opportunity is handed to us to support and show solidarity and positivity towards Islam, it should be taken.

Here is a strong and successful Muslim woman being put in a position to choose between two of the most important things in her life – religion and basketball. In the documentary she produced to enlighten people with her story, she expressed a desire to not conform. Bilqis gave a lot of thought to her decision to continue wearing her hijab as part of her faith and in doing so sacrificed her opportunities to play professionally. The personal characteristics that guided her to make this final decision reflects the qualities in any human being that should be held up as an example to be respected and admired – dedication, resilience, integrity, equality. Such a role model in society shouldn’t be fighting for equality in this world. Equality should be given, not earned. It is a fundamental human right. We need to be better. As a sport, we need to be better. As a society, we need to be better.

Basketball has been presented with a special opportunity in our current climate of misguided fear and gross misunderstanding. Without auditioning, it has been offered a role in one of those American sports movies that really is real life. If FIBA Europe decides to overrule or rewrite article 4.4.2 it is using its power for the good. It is using its power to break down more barriers, to level another playing field, to send a message to the world that what is really important is equality for all and what is really is beautiful is diversity in all its forms. Give Bilqis her opportunity to play professionally and in doing so enable other Muslim women to be empowered and inspired.

Show us why we love sport by showing us the unique power it can have!

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