A slideshow of Muslim women athletes plays in the background. Some wear the hijab while others don’t. However, this distinction shouldn’t be the first and only thing spectators recognize when watching these athletes compete at the Olympic Games, the FIFA Women’s World Cup or somewhere closer to home.
Story by Zoya Zia
At a South by Southwest panel discussion about sports and social change on Saturday, three distinguished sports speakers unpacked the layers of obstacles facing Muslim women athletes who work and train for success.
Sports and inclusion consultant at Moore Development Ltd. Michelle Moore introduced the speakers. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is a former college basketball player and current athletic director while Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist.
Moore provided context to the topic of the discussion. Dating back to the mid-20th century, hijab-wearing Muslim women have competed in sports and inspired a generation by broadening the scope of what an athlete may look like.
At the same time, the efforts of women athletes can be reduced to their appearances. Moore referenced a prominent image from the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Media coverage on the beach volleyball match between Doaa El-Ghobashy and Nada Meawad of Egypt and Laura Ludwig and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany focused more on their outfits than the match itself.
With regards to the question of burkini versus bikini, Ahmed expressed her disappointment in the headlines and pointed out that the majority of sports media is run by cis-gendered white men. “This isn’t just about Muslim women, this is about controlling what women wear,” Ahmed says. “The image is of two athletes who have trained to represent their countries.”
In the current political landscape, Moore questioned what it means to be an intersectional figure in sports and how athletes including Muhammad Ali and Serena Williams have set examples for creating social change. As a former athlete who strives to amplify the voices of minorities, Moore described how this panel has been a vision in the making.
The panel continued with a powerful trailer of the film “Life Without Basketball,” showcasing Abdul-Qaadir’s passion for the sport. The film takes a close look at her journey breaking records and rising to the top. It also disproves the stereotype that Muslim women are quiet and submissive by demonstrating the amount of resilience they have.
Abdul-Qaadir further described her upbringing in a Muslim household. She is the youngest of eight children, all of whom play basketball. “Basketball has been a part of my life for a very long time,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “While my mother was pregnant with me, I probably heard basketballs bouncing around the house.”
After breaking records in high school and earning a full scholarship to play at the University of Memphis, Abdul-Qaadir moved towards her dream of becoming a professional basketball player. She is considered the first hijab-wearing basketball player in the NCAA and continued to excel after transferring to Indiana State University.
Everything changed when the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) banned the hijab. Abdul-Qaadir wrote back to FIBA, explaining why she wears the hijab. After FIBA responded and claimed that the hijab could be a safety issue, Abdul-Qaadir says she wondered how a piece of material could harm someone.
Basketball was Abdul-Qaadir’s passion and being a Muslim remains her way of life. Without basketball, she started to ask if she was still herself. Although she made the decision to stop playing basketball and admits to missing the sport, she also admits that this experience strengthened her spirituality. “I do believe that God does things for a reason, and now I'm stepping into a role as as an athlete-activist,” Abdul-Qaadir says.
Ahmed regularly shares stories about Muslim women in sports and considers intersections of racism and misogyny in her writing. According to Ahmed, what happened to Abdul-Qaadir is not unusual. “Sports are inherently political, they always have been,” Ahmed says. “For those who don't say they are, they come from privilege."
Other international federations besides FIBA are being forced to take stances on the issue. Ahmed mentioned that the International Boxing Association (AIBA) also had a hijab ban and that FIFA rescinded its own ban in 2014 because there was no evidence that the hijab posed a safety risk.
More often than not, privileged men wield decision-making power in the different federations that compose the sports world. “This is about extreme levels of misogyny, layered with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and transphobia,” Ahmed says. “These are realities.”
FIBA was set to vote on the future of the ban in January, but the vote has been pushed back to May. Abdul-Qaadir notes that the issue stems beyond the hijab to other garments including the Sikh turban. When asked how she feels about the ban, she offered words of encouragement. “I’m being optimistic,” Abdul-Qaadir says.
In a tone of optimism, some have praised Nike’s new product, the “Nike Pro Hijab,” as a step forward. Moore asked Abdul-Qaadir about her thoughts. “I love Nike and I wear it everyday, but the hijab that Nike recently announced has already been created by multiple businesses,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “We don’t need Nike to create this, we need people to let us play.”
Ahmed agreed with Moore on this point. “These hijabs have been invented already,” Ahmed says. “Smaller companies created new prototypes to appease the needs of federations and meet their standards.”
On top of this, Ahmed mentioned how campaigns like Nike Pro Hijab ignore the existence of Muslim women who don’t wear hijab. “This is why I included an image of Dalilah Muhammad with Ibtihaj Muhammad in the slideshow,” Ahmed says. “They are both equally important. One chooses to cover, the other does not, but they face similar issues.”
Reflecting on her journey as a sports activist, Abdul-Qaadir recognizes the burden and privilege that other Muslim women athletes grapple with. They are held on a pedestal as role models for an entire population.
When Abdul-Qaadir was stopped by FIBA’s ban, she says she learned to be unselfish and look at the bigger picture. “I wanted to hit threes, I wanted to be that player, but that wasn’t the case,” Abdul-Qaadir says. Despite the setbacks, Abdul-Qaadir says she is proud of her journey and that the good outweighed the bad.
Prompted by Moore, Abdul-Qaadir walked the audience through her experiences meeting former President Barack Obama at the White House Iftar Dinner in 2009 and playing a one-on-one game of basketball a few years later. “It didn’t seem like the President was running the United States of America at the time,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “I cut him no slack, his shot was a little awkward.”
From the White House to communities closer to home, sports bring communities together. Ahmed says she believes that athletes have powerful stories and can relay messages. “I couldn’t play soccer anymore when I started wearing the hijab, nobody should go through that,” Ahmed says. “It’s not an easy climate to be working in. We love sports, I love critiquing it.”
To wrap up the discussion, Moore asked Ahmed and Abdul-Qaadir how they think the playing field can become more equal. “More women, everywhere, full stop,” Ahmed says. “We need a diverse group of women in general.”
In a similar vein, Abdul-Qaadir encouraged the audience to follow women’s sports. “When you watch a women’s basketball game, you see nothing but pure effort,” Abdul-Qaadir says. “Follow our stories, especially women who don’t fit the norm. Follow Ibtihaj. Learn about why we cover or why we don’t cover. We need to educate ourselves about things we don’t understand.”
Muslim women athletes wear the hijab and they don’t wear the hijab. They are fencers, footballers, basketball players and much more. “Our stories are not monolithic,” Ahmed says. “Follow women of color, follow trans-athletes, diversify whose stories you’re reading.”
Ahmed thanked Moore for centering the conversation around the stories of Muslim women athletes. Abdul-Qaadir added that these kinds of panels are important. “We want to keep using our voices and having opportunities to amplify them,” Abdul-Qaadir says. "Open your eyes to the bigger picture because it’s beautiful in the end.”