While many of the activists and supporters backing her cause are in a celebratory mood, Indira Kaljo still faces the somber possibility that her career has come to a premature end. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, meanwhile, accepts the likelihood that her career may never begin.
Kaljo, a Bosnian-American from California, and Abdul-Qaadir, an African-American from Massachusetts, were once rivals on the basketball court. Today, they are teammates facing a challenge that is bigger than the game; one that impacts Muslim women and girls all over the world.
And on Sept. 16, they received the bad news–masked cleverly as good news–that they are still denied equal access to the sport they love because of the hijab headscarves they choose to wear as part of their Islamic faith.
FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, has in its official rulebook a brief section known as Article 4.4.2. It contains a list of items and accessories that cannot be worn on the court because “they may cause injury to other players.” That blacklist includes “headgear, hair accessories and jewellery.” Headbands that are no more than five centimeters in width are permitted.
What it means is that during FIBA-endorsed competition–international tournaments such as the Olympics and World Cup, and just about every professional league on the planet outside of the NBA and WNBA—Muslim women cannot play while wearing hijab headscarves, Sikh men cannot play while wearing turbans or patkas, and Jewish men cannot play while wearing yarmulkes. If they are for some reason allowed on the court by officials, their team could be forced the game.
Kaljo is an overseas pro who has played two seasons in Ireland and Bosnia. Until recently she did not wear hijab on or off the court, but since deciding to cover earlier this year, she has been unable to sign with a pro team.
Abdul-Qaadir was a high school phenom who wore hijab on the court back then and made history in 2010 when she became the first NCAA Division-1 college player to wear hijab on the court (Abdul-Qaadir played for the University of Memphis at the time, and during that season she met Kaljo, who played for Conference USA foe Tulane University). Following Abdul-Qaadir’s senior season at Indiana State University, her pursuit of a pro contract was cut short because she couldn’t find a team willing to sign a player that could cause them to forfeit any wins she helped earn.
“Honestly, I pray for [Abdul-Qaadir} sake that this rule will be changed before too long,” Kaljo said when I first interviewed her in July for a feature on Ummah Sports. “I got my years in playing pro, and may Allah forgive me for not covering, but she deserves the opportunity to play because she’s a very gifted basketball player.”
FIBA’s anti-hijab rule has been in existence for years and has been challenged on occasion, but only recently has it come under widespread international scrutiny.
Abdul-Qaadir talked about her plight in an interview with Ummah Sports in May, which caught the attention of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Kaljo then reached out to Ummah Sports and CAIR to tell her story. Both women contacted FIBA on the matter, and against the advice of one FIBA official, Kaljo started an online petition to force the organization to eliminate its discriminatory headgear rule.
Eventually the United States Olympic Committee and the Indian government got involved, among others, and finally FIBA scheduled a review of Article 4.4.2 for its August 27 board meeting in Spain. That meeting did not produce a ruling, but after a follow-up meeting weeks later, FIBA made its announcement on Sept. 16.
FIBA will begin a two-year “testing phase” to explore lifting the headgear ban.
During that time, national federations must petition FIBA to allow players to wear prohibited headgear. If the petition is approved, the federation then must submit follow-up reports twice a year. Meanwhile, FIBA will allow players to wear non-headband headgear in its 3-on-3 basketball competitions, similar to the 3-on-3 tournament held at this summer’s Youth Olympic Games in China.
Article 4.4.2 will be evaluated again in 2015 and 2016, though a decision on editing or eliminating the rule will likely not happen before the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
The headlines sounded good. “FIBA relaxes rules on headgear” … “FIBA to allow hijab, turbans in competition” … “FIBA rules players can wear religious headgear.”
But upon further review, what has really changed? And why could it take so long to right an obvious wrong?
Kaljo and Abdul-Qaadir still cannot play pro basketball in a FIBA-endorsed league without being in violation of the anti-hijab rule. The language in FIBA’s official statement seems clear that the trial period only applies to national federations, not individual pro leagues. So while Abdul-Qaadir could play while wearing hijab if she were on Team USA, she still can’t play while wearing hijab for even a lower-division pro team in, say, Germany or Italy. Kaljo is eligible to play for the Bosnian national team—which has been a longtime goal of hers— but she still cannot play in, for example, the Bosnian pro league that she played in last season.
“We are deeply disappointed with FIBA. It shouldn’t take two years to make what should be a simple decision to eliminate a discriminatory practice,” U.S. congressmen Ami Bera and Joe Crowley said in a joint statement following FIBA’s announcement. “There is no evidence that turbans or religious headgear pose a threat to players, and it’s time for FIBA to do what the rest of the sporting world is doing and let Sikhs play.”
As the congressmen point out, this would not be an unprecedented or groundbreaking move for FIBA to simply lift the ban. Soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, lifted their own anti-headgear rule in 2014 following a two-year trial run. The governing bodies for weightlifting and track and field also allow religious head coverings, and allow Muslim women to compete while wearing full hijab.
No one is asking FIBA to make a bold move to stand out from the crowd. All FIBA is being asked to do is fall in line and do the right thing.
CAIR’s official response to FIBA’s ruling was primarily positive.
“We welcome this policy change by FIBA because it allows Muslims, Sikhs and others who wear religious head coverings to take part in the sport that they love while maintaining their beliefs,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR National Communications Director, in a statement. “FIBA should be congratulated for responding positively to all those who sought reasonable religious accommodation for athletes of all faiths.”
That is understandable. As a political activism organization, CAIR has to, well, play the political game. With so many sensitive issues on their plate in what can be a very anti-Muslim climate in America, showing dissatisfaction with small victories like the FIBA ruling would soon earn them a label (albeit an unjustified one) of being impossible-to-please whiners and complainers.
Well, I’m going to whine and complain, if that’s what critics want to call it. And so is Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. While FIBA’s ruling is a step in the right direction, it is a step that is too small, too slow and undeniably weak.
Imagine if we were talking about a woman’s right to vote. Or the racial integration of public schools. Who would be happy with a two-year testing phase that didn’t even cover all elections or all levels of education? Imagine a ruling that essentially said, “Sorry, sister, you can’t vote for the President. But you can vote for city council until we determine you won’t hurt yourself.” Or one that included a two-year trial run of integrating elementary schools but didn’t include middle and high schools. (Actually, if you want to get even the most stereotypically anti-Muslim individual on your side, make a similar argument for a hypothetical ban on an American’s right to bear arms.)
Hypotheticals aside, we are at this moment seeing how quickly a sports industry heavyweight can fix policies and procedures, with the National Football League’s sudden changes to pre-existing norms regarding domestic violence and drug use. FIBA is capable of moving just as quickly to solve its problems.
“I feel like this is just [FIBA’s] way of putting it off to the side and taking some of the heat off,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “All of a sudden they had all of these organizations joining in the movement, so it seems like they just did this to get the fire off their back. ‘Let’s not make a permanent decision, let’s make it a trial.’”
Abdul-Qaadir, who has returned to Indiana State to finish her master’s degree and work as the Director of Operations for the women’s basketball program, says she has been playing basketball while wearing a hijab headscarf for about a decade covering her high school and college career. Through hundreds of games and thousands of practices, she says the hijab has never caused an injury to herself, to a teammate or to an opponent.
Kaljo, who recently accepted a job offer to teach physical education in Saudi Arabia, played in a (non-FIBA) California summer league this year while wearing hijab, and similarly caused no problems for herself or other players.
“Alhamdulillah, I’m glad they made the decision because I understand change doesn’t always happen fast, but I still don’t know what this means,” she said.
I think it means FIBA still doesn’t get it. Or perhaps it means the organization’s desire to not look like they are totally wrong is being put above the overdue equal rights of at least three religious groups impacted by Article 4.4.2. The other alternative is that FIBA actually wants to continue blatantly discriminating against Muslims, Sikhs and Jews, but optimistically I don’t think that’s the case.
“At first I was excited when I saw the headline [on Sept. 16], but after I read the whole thing, I think people are being misled,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “It’s not over. I’ve been getting all of these congratulatory emails and texts, but as far as I know I still really can’t do anything. … Nothing’s really changed.”
“I’m starting to just, I don’t know, to like not even want to be part of (FIBA),” Abdul-Qaadir adds. “Even if they were to change the rule soon, do I want to play for this organization that didn’t want me to play in the first place?”
It’s not too late for FIBA to change its stance, re-review Article 4.4.2, and simply eliminate the prohibition on religious headgear before the start of the upcoming winter basketball season. There’s nothing that says the weak and insulting “testing phase” cannot be scrapped immediately in favor of a making a stronger statement against religious discrimination.
In this case, following the reactionary example of the NFL would actually be the right thing to do.