Basketball’s glass ceiling preventing women from reaching their potential

With the trial period set to end and an impending decision by FIBA on the wearing of religious headgear on court, we caught up with Asma Elbadawi a British Sudanese who is campaigning to have the ban overturned.

As explained, back in 2014: The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which oversees prominent professional leagues in Europe and boasts 213 national federations worldwide, has long enforced a rigid policy that prohibits “headgear, hair accessories and jewelry” and only allows players to wear a 5-centimeter headband to control hair and sweat. Although officials often claim that the rules exist as a safety precaution, the regulations have drawn heavy criticism because they effectively prohibit Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish players who participate in FIBA games from wearing traditional religious headgear such as turbans, hijabs, and yarmulkes.

During its first meeting of the 2014-2019 term, however, FIBA’s newly-elected leadership announced that they would dial back their enforcement of the policy and begin a two-year “test phase” that will allow national groups to apply for exceptions to the rules for games played within their borders.

We begin our conversation with Asma by asking about her path into basketball: “I started playing basketball in 2010 during the start of my 3rd year of my 4-year university course in Photography, Video and Digital Imaging. It was a sport I never really got the opportunity to play and learn – since there is a bigger focus on netball for women in UK schools. I found out Sunderland University had a women’s basketball team, I contacted them and was accepted to play on the team.

“After playing basketball for 5 years and completing a Masters In Visual Arts, I decided to take a season out to gain experience volunteering and working abroad and to pursue a career in spoken word poetry. I taught in a school during the day time and coached basketball in the evenings. I also ended up winning the Wordsfirst Poetry Competition run by BBC1xtra and the Roundhouse – I was presented with the opportunity to combine basketball and poetry in a short film called Together Alone that is currently on BBCIplayer. As well as winning a 6 month mentorship, the programme ended with a huge performance at the Roundhouse in london where I performed poetry relating to identity in my basketball clothes. I have also been coaching basketball and wheelchair basketball, giving talks and running taster sessions at schools across the UK with my fellow team mate Ezdihar and Coach Zaman.

“So I guess you could say I was more involved in the development side of basketball, raising awareness and encouraging Muslim female participation in basketball by coaching and giving talks at schools – as well as using my poetry background for the same cause, which to me is just as important. I always tell the girls that I meet that sports can be incorporated into their lives and it shouldn’t stop while they are at secondary school, university, working or married.”

Noting the many positive aspects of basketball for personal development, Asma went onto speak of the plethora of doors the game has opened: “Playing basketball has opened up many opportunities for me, it has allowed me to travel, play alongside women from all over the world and strengthen my interpersonal and people skills. I have been able to obtain coaching qualifications that have allowed me to coach in different settings: from females at university level in the UK to both young men and women in a secondary school in rural Tanzania. The fact that I was not a male was picked up on straight away by both genders and I was complimented by both staff and students as they felt this gave young girls something new to aspire to while the boys were able to interact with and accept females in less traditional roles.”

It’s for these reasons that Asma is speaking out and petitioning for FIBA to step up and remove the ban on religious headgear: “I was actually contacted by Indira, a professional American basketballer, who started the campaign in 2014. She was looking for an artist to deliver Art and Poetry workshops to empower young children for her Global Aktivne organisation. After a couple of conversations she found out I play basketball with a Hijab and then made me aware of the ban. She asked if I would like to take part in the campaign and if I knew anyone else who played with hijab. I agreed and myself and 3 other team mates where invited to attend a friendly game in Turkey, May 2016. It was aired on national television to highlight the fact that there are many muslim women around the world that play and love basketball. Soon after we began working on the campaign and launched it on 15th of July.

“On a personal level the ban makes it impossible for players like myself to compete at an international or professional level so we are limited to how far we can take basketball. In terms of the development of basketball as a whole, it’s vital that we have role models for devout Muslim, Jewish and Sikh girls, and Hindu males and females. As humans we naturally aspire to reach our full potential, knowing there are no barriers to do that keeps us motivated. The ban puts a limit on how far athletes from the above faith groups can progress and ultimately asks them to choose between their faith and a sport they really love. Personally, when I get asked that question I feel like I am being asking to give up my brain or a heart. It’s hard and not to mention FIBA is missing out and writing off talent from a number of communities.

“The absence of muslim women in Hijab playing basketball or any other sport for that matter on our TV screens is often interpreted by muslims to mean that it’s inappropriate for muslim women to play a sport or have a career as an athlete. This is because of the perception that her modesty would be compromised, which is not the case at all. It’s possible to stay modest while playing basketball, and Islam encourages both men and women to be health conscious, exercise and to use their talent for good. So if a female is good at basketball she needs to honour that gift and use it for the greater good.”

Having acheived tens of thousands of supporters, the #FIBAALLOWHIJAB movement continues to be an incredible success. We concluded our chat with Asma by asking the advocate if she expeced the support: ” I am not really surprised by the support so far. In total we have about 12 female basketball players and referees across the world who are part of the #FIBAALLOWHIJAB movement. Every single one of us has worked hard on this campaign so I had no doubt that social media would help inspire people to join the campaign and support us by sharing, tweeting and most importantly signing the petition.

“It’s important because there are so many sports that still have a ban on headgear and as muslims we feel discriminated against, we can’t take part in the majority of olympic games, and other big tournaments and I am afraid the consequences of FIBA rejecting our request to lift the ban will result in other sports governors following in their footsteps.”

If you would like to support the campaign you can check out more of Asma’s work on Facebook Twitter and Instagram @asmaelbadawi.

Image: VSO ICS/Andrew Aitchison