The first Muslim woman to play wearing a hijab in the NCAA speaks at MU

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir: “Sport is universal. I could bring a ball to Spain and there would be language gap, but the ball would speak."

Basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, the first woman to play covered in NCAA history, gave a speech to about 50 people at Ellis Auditorium on Tuesday night.

Abdul-Qaadir is currently unable to play basketball internationally due to an International Basketball Federation ban on headgear. She travels the country giving speeches to raise awareness of the ban and for Muslim women in sports.

Abdul-Qaadir’s speech was coordinated by the Muslim Student Organization and Student Life.

“It’s significant because it offered a perspective to show what it’s like for a Muslim woman in sports and the importance to allow them to pursue their dreams,” said Zakaria El-Tayash, president of the Muslim Student Organization.

Abdul-Qaadir attributes much of her success to the hijab she wears, explaining that her hijab marked her as an icon in sports for Muslim women.

“Hijab got me so far,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “It got me a full ride [to the University of Memphis]. It got me to the White House. You get caught up in it.”

To Muslim women, she said, wearing the hijab is a symbol of faith. Women typically choose to start wearing hijab when they begin puberty. She recalled feeling uncomfortable when she first started wearing hijab as a freshman, but she never felt uncomfortable with playing basketball.

Abdul-Qaadir said basketball helped “balance the faith part.” She said that when she was on the court, there wasn’t time to think, just to play.

“A woman may wear the hijab for a particular personal reason, but the way that others read her wearing the hijab will change as she moves through different social spaces: home, the mosque, the street, a basketball game, etc.,” Nathan Hofer, an assistant professor of religious studies with an emphasis on Islam and Judaism, said in an email. “So when a Muslim woman chooses to wear the hijab there are a host of factors that go into that decision.”

Hofer said that in the United States and Europe, Muslim women typically wear hijab as a “symbol of modesty,” contrary to classical Islamic tradition, which views the hijab as a “tool of achieving modesty.”

Abdul-Qaadir planned to sign with an international team when she finished her senior season at Memphis. She still remembers the day she got a call from her agent, who told her that she couldn’t wear the hijab if she wanted to play internationally, because of the FIBA ban.

Abdul-Qaadir said she told her agent to tell FIBA that it was a part of her religion. She had to wear it. At first, FIBA told Abdul-Qaadir that it didn’t allow representation of religion on the court. She questioned this statement, arguing that many athletes had cross and Bible tattoos on their arms.

They replied that it was actually due to a safety standard.

“I do believe FIBA’s failure to act was discrimination … but if you’re international you have to be inclusive to everyone,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “How could hijab hurt anyone in the first place?”

Abdul-Qaadir attributes FIBA’s ban to a wariness of Islam and ignorance of the religion.

“Sport is universal,” she said. “I could bring a ball to Spain and there would be a language gap, but the ball would speak.”

Abdul-Qaadir has been a representative of Muslim women in sports throughout her career as an NCAA player. Her story has been featured on USA Today, Motto and a Pixela Pictura documentary called “FIBA Allow Hijab.”

The prominence of the hijab has been making national news lately due to Nike’s announcement of a “Pro-Hijab” line of athletic hijab.

Abdul-Qaadir said the Nike hijab is not the first athletic hijab to be made.

“Sixteen years ago, companies were creating athletic hijab … it’s not a new thing,” she said.

She said the social media attention Nike was getting was nice, though, and that diversifying the company is ultimately a good thing. However, the Nike hijab announcement has received some backlash on social media, with some users threatening to “boycott Nike,” according to an article in The Independent.

“This is not about the hijab, per se, but rather the normalization of Muslims as Americans,” Hofer said. “Any attempt to present or represent Muslims as regular Americans with the same rights as every other citizen will be met with resistance in those small pockets of Euro-American society that cling to antiquated notions of a ‘pure’ western civilization, at best, and a pure Aryan civilization, at worst.”

Abdul-Qaadir is currently working in Memphis as an athletics director in an Islamic school, along with traveling and speaking. At one point during the speech, she said that while she liked speaking in front of people, if there was a pickup game going on outside, that’s ultimately where she would want to be.

“Ball is still life,” she said.

The headgear ban is still in place and will be renegotiated by FIBA in May.

Edited by Kyle LaHucik | klahucik@themaneater.com

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