By: Shelby Graham
In the spirit of Women’s History Month, the WCSU Program Activities Council (PAC) hosted Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir for a discussion on Tuesday, March 26, at 8 p.m. in the Westside Campus Center Ballroom. Qaadir’s mother, father and 93-year-old grandmother joined the audience to witness her speak to WCSU students and faculty about her choice between love for sport and devotion to faith.
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is known for breaking barriers by forfeiting a well-deserved career to defend her religious rights. Since being blocked from playing professional basketball on account of her wearing a hijab on the court, Qaadir has successfully overturned FIBA’s ban on headwear. Now, she travels internationally to speak about her religious activism and her experience as an African-American Muslim basketball player.
Qaadir was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, which is also where basketball was invented by a graduate student of Springfield College in 1891. Her innate passion for basketball was shared among her community and her family. She spent a lot of time in the park and at local community centers watching her brothers play basketball, all while trying to mimic their moves. Qaadir recalls first playing basketball at age four with a kid’s net that her parents set up in the dining room for her and her seven older siblings.
“That’s where I started to shoot layups and dribbling the ball,” Qaadir said, “I remember my brothers getting on their knees and blocking every shot.”
Qaadir’s mother homeschooled her during her early education, which enabled her to practice her basketball skills in between lessons daily. Like many other inner-city youths, Qaadir viewed sport as her opportunity to escape poverty. At 12 years old, she dedicated herself to basketball in hopes of earning a sports scholarship for college.
“It was no longer just a hobby,” Qaadir said, “I was grinding every day trying to be the best basketball player I could be.”
Qaadir began attending a small public charter school for grades six through twelve and consisted of less than 400 students. She made the varsity basketball team as an eighth grader and scored 43 points in her debut game.
In the ninth-grade, she began to cover and wear a hijab as a way to deepen her religious experience. Although she wasn’t treated differently by her peers at school while wearing her hijab, she experienced discrimination on the court. One particular scenario had stuck with her to this day.
“I was taking the ball out on the sideline right in front of the fan section,” Qaadir said, “I had the ball, waiting for my open teammate and a kid yelled out ‘she looks like Osama bin Laden’s niece!’”
When enduring such offensive types of mocking, Qaadir positively manifested her feelings. Instead of becoming reactive or outwardly defensive, she perceived the negative attention as an opportunity to break stereotypes and educate people about her faith.
“I saw duty in it, and that’s what I took from those taunts or those stares and glares,” Qaadir said.
Qaadir often felt misjudged and unaccepted by people in the basketball community throughout high school, and even college. She was frequently questioned about her choices. People asked her why she was wearing her hijab, and why she didn’t take it off when playing for the sake of convenience if nothing else. She blamed the bad attitudes she endured on blatant ignorance.
“We, as Muslim women, cover our bodies for modesty and protection; to be seen as believers of the faith. What people don’t know is the way we dress is nothing new,” Qaadir said.
Qaadir’s basketball skills attracted college recruiters more than the attention she received for playing in her hijab did. To this day, she remains the all-time leading scorer in Massachusetts for boys and girls high school basketball, with a record of approximately 3,000 points.
She was recruited by the basketball coach at the University of Memphis, where she enrolled as a college freshman. It wasn’t long until Qaadir realized she wasn’t being treated right.
“The recruiting process is a business, and colleges tell their prospects whatever they want to hear,” Qaadir said, “The coaches sold me on the dream, but things changed when I got there.”
As a college freshman, Qaadir was invited by the U.S. Office of Public Liaison to attend Ramadan dinner at the White House, where she dined with President Barack Obama. She even went on to beat Mr. President in a game of H-O-R-S-E on his private basketball court.
After her visit to the White House, reporters showed up at her team practice in Memphis to ask about her experience. At that time, Qaadir said she became very aware that her coach was dismissing all of the questions about her, and dominating the conversation with talk about other people. She transferred from the University of Memphis to Indiana State University her senior year of college.
During her senior year of college, Qaadir showcased her talent in a combine, a secondary WNBA draft, and was picked out by an international agency. Soon after she started working with that agency, she was approached about a FIBA (a.k.a. International Basketball Federation) rule banning headwear.
Thus, began a long fight between Qaadir and FIBA.
“I knew I had the ability to play pro, and that had been my dream for a long time,” Qaadir said.
According to Qaadir, she was told the headwear rule had been instated to keep the game religiously neutral. In response to this, she argued that the ban was unfair because the league allows athletes to display tattoos reflecting religious beliefs. FIBA also stated that the ban was put in effect as a safety precaution. She argued that the ban was invalid because her hijab was soft, not worn around the neck, and didn’t require pins.
“I knew there was no way I could cause harm to myself or anyone else,” Qaadir said.
Because of this, Qaadir started a petition to overrule the ban, which got over a hundred thousand signatures.
“Every time somebody signs an electronic petition, FIBA will get an email,” Qaadir said, “imagine getting 100,000 emails back to back.”
Qaadir said FIBA was unresponsive, which caused her to continue missing the season, hindering her chances of going pro.
At that point, Qaadir said she realized she was experiencing institutional discrimination. She faced a choice to either conform to FIBA’s rules by removing her hijab to play or continue to fight the rule and forfeit her dream of playing professional basketball.
Twenty four year old Qaadir arrived at a crossroad. Although she publicly claimed that her hijab meant more to her than people realized, she felt like she was faking religious advocacy. She loved basketball more than anything, and while she felt a responsibility to stay true to her faith, she couldn’t help but question her destiny and her identity.
Until then, Qaadir’s relationship with basketball was easy and felt pre-determined. She was naturally talented, earned a scholarship, was offered the opportunity to travel the world to do what she loved – but at what cost?
In the process of making this life-changing decision, Qaadir prayed with intent and purpose, looking for an anchor to keep her grounded in a tumultuous time. She decided not to compromise her religious experience to play for an organization that wouldn’t accept her as she is.
After four years of fighting FIBA’s ban on headwear, the rule was lifted in October 2017. From then on, Qaadir has been speaking about her experience in public, which led her to see a new purpose and re-identify without basketball.
“Speaking wasn’t my dream, but God had other plans,” Qaadir said, “I had to embrace it.”
Qaadir aims to empower Muslim girls by teaching them the values of being an athlete. Her goal is that they will walk onto any field or court and be seen as athletes regardless of their ethnicity.
“I know that my true purpose is to share my story and to educate people who aren’t in my faith and people who are in my faith of the struggles that we face,” Qaadir said.
Qaadir closed her discussion reminding her audience that sport is a human right, and we need to be mindful of all our human rights.