Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir made NCAA history as the first Muslim woman to play basketball in a hijab.
She gave up her dream of playing professionally after rules prohibited her from wearing a headscarf.
The 'hijabi hooper' shares how she's finding hope in the fight in Iran over women's right to choose.
This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, who made college basketball history by becoming the first Muslim woman player in a hijab. She is now the athletic director at a mosque in London and co-founder of Dribbling Down Barriers, a training program that promotes diversity in basketball. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of basketball. As the youngest of eight, I knew I wanted to play ball, just like my older brothers and sisters. At the age of three, I got my first basketball hoop, and things just took off from there.
I didn't start wearing the hijab until I was a freshman in high school. Aside from my name, no one could physically see that I was Muslim until I started to display my faith that way. My mom, my aunts, and my sisters wear the hijab, and I knew this was a practice I was going to adopt, too. I never resisted it, though I did feel uncomfortable at first, physically and socially.
The first time I heard anything about my headscarf was at a basketball game against a Catholic team in Massachusetts. When I was taking the ball out on the sideline, a kid from the stands yelled, "You look like Osama bin Laden's niece!"
I wanted to turn around and throw the ball at his face. My coach, who was a very intimidating man, came storming across the court, but we both keep our cool. I think the school ended up suspending the kid.
There were multiple occasions like that throughout high school and college, but I kind of got used to it. I instead used my skill and talent to make people understand that it doesn't matter what I look like, or what I wear. If I'm good at ball, then respect me for that.
Making NCAA history
Becoming the first Muslim woman to play basketball in a headscarf in NCAA history was a great opportunity for me to represent my faith on a big stage. But I don't think I fully realized the sheer weight that held at the time.
Being a woman, Black, and Muslim — it's a trifecta of sorts. It's a beautiful trifecta, but it meant I was exposed to that much more scrutiny. My natural reactions, like certain facial expressions and stomping off the court, seemed to weigh heavily on people, like, "I didn't know Muslim women could get mad," or "Black women are always so angry."
I also initially felt timid with my faith. Being the only Muslim was tough. We pray five times a day, and sometimes I would have to pray during practice or during games. There were times I'd have to ask to use the other team's locker room to pray. But I became more proud of my faith over time.
Questioning my faith and identity as 'the hijabi hooper'
When I came up against rules by the International Basketball Federation prohibiting certain headgear, I was honestly ready to quit. It was a selfish thought: If I can't play, then forget it.
I also started questioning my faith. My entire career, I'd worn the hijab. I felt like I was trying to do my best as a Muslim woman and represent my faith, but when I reached my dream of playing professional basketball, I was told no, I couldn't play because of my hijab. I started to question God, like, you had to take away my dream because of my faith.
I began questioning myself, too. For the longest time, I was known as the Muslim girl who plays basketball, the hijabi hooper. And when you took basketball away, I was just a Muslim. I asked myself, was I representing my faith in the best of ways?
I found my answer at a speaking engagement at a small Sunday school. I walked into a room full of Muslim kids, the little girls sitting criss-cross applesauce. After I gave my talk, they came up to me and said, "I want to be like you," and "I want to wear what you wear." That was my aha moment for me. It wasn't about me anymore. Instead, I knew I had to make the path easier for those who were coming after me.
The fruits of sacrifice
When the International Basketball Federation finally approved a new rule allowing players to wear headgear in 2017, man, it was bittersweet. Bitter, because it took four years, but sweet because I felt like I played a huge role in making a change in a global sport. The rule didn't just affect Muslim women, but also Sikh men wearing turbans and Jewish men wearing yarmulkes.
Putting my dreams of playing professionally aside was a sacrifice. But a sacrifice doesn't always mean that the "something else" is worse than what we let go of. In my case, sometimes you can give up something you love for something better. Now, I see the fruits of my sacrifice.
Finding hope in progress amid the Iranian protests
When I first heard about the death of Mahsa Amini, I was devastated and angry. The fact that we still have to fight for the right to choose is beyond me. It's exhausting to the point where you feel hopeless, helpless. What else do women need to do to feel human in all spaces, whether it's here in America or in Iran, or any part of the world?
Change ultimately starts within our homes, and as individuals, it's what we can do in our communities that can have the greatest impact. It's teaching our children and family members to accept people from all walks of life and their decisions.
We've made a lot of strides. Changes have been made, like women gaining the ability to choose whether or not to wear the hijab in some countries, or Title IX protecting equality in sports. Sometimes, we have to see the growth and change to keep going to renew and keep fighting for change. Because otherwise, it will defeat your spirit.
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