Up Next

Faith and Sports

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir endured the heartache of choosing faith over basketball

The former Memphis and Indiana State player helped overturn a FIBA rule banning hijabs

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

College basketball star Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was faced with a choice: faith or sports.

Faith won.

Abdul-Qaadir, now 28, played her entire high school and college career in a hijab. She wore tights under her shorts and a long-sleeved shirt under her jersey. Her face and neck were exposed, but her hair was covered.

She didn’t make the WNBA in 2014, so she sought to play overseas and possibly work her way into the league. Those plans were derailed when her agent told her about the International Basketball Federation’s (FIBA’s) headgear rule: It wasn’t allowed.

“It was devastating,” she recalled. “I struggled with being a Muslim. Having to choose between my hijab, which is essentially my faith, it is more than a piece of material. But to give up my passion was a struggle.”

She joined the #FIBAAllowHijab campaign to garner support to change FIBA’s policy, and it paid off. In 2017, FIBA changed its rules to allow head coverings such as the hijab, tichel and turban in international competition. But after three years of training, rather than jump back on the court, she’s decided to stay on the bench.

“I’m still making peace with the decision,” she said. “People still call me and ask me to play for them.”

FIBA had defended its initial stance on religious headgear as a way to prevent injuries and promote a religiously neutral environment. In 2014, FIBA communications coordinator Simon Wilkinson told Ummah Sports that FIBA rules and regulations “apply on a global scale and make no distinction between the various religions.”

“This measure is in place for reasons of safety and uniformity on the basketball court in particular. This article makes provision for only one exception — headbands no wider than 5 centimeters, which allow for hair and sweat to be held back in order not to disturb the player.”

Abdul-Qaadir, however, saw the policy as a form of discrimination. She saw a life without basketball or her hijab as simply wrong. At one point, Abdul-Qaadir considered playing without a scarf.

“Why can’t I go overseas to a country where nobody knows me, take off my scarf for 40 minutes and put it back on afterwards?”

But that thought never sat well.

“Am I going to give up who I truly am to please this organization who doesn’t want me to represent who I am?” she asked.

Abdul-Qaadir still holds the high school career scoring record in Massachusetts. Her 3,070 total points broke the record of WNBA star and fellow Massachusetts native Rebecca Lobo, whose total of 2,740 points had stood unchallenged for 18 years. Abdul-Qaadir then became the first NCAA Division I athlete to wear a hijab, first at the University of Memphis (2009-13) and later at Indiana State University. She finished her collegiate basketball career there, averaging 14.2 points per game.

President Barack Obama invited her to the White House in 2015 to break the Ramadan fast and again for the White House Easter Egg Roll, where she won a game of H-O-R-S-E with the president. Her journey prompted a documentary film, Life Without Basketball, which was shown Nov. 10 at the DOC NYC film festival.

The NCAA requires athletes to get a waiver to wear “head decorations.” Requests must include why the hijab would not be a danger to other players, a description of the material and how the hijab would be worn. Even if a waiver is granted, referees can still bench a player if they think the hijab appears to pose a danger to other players.

The NCAA was not able to confirm how many waivers have been granted since Abdul-Qaadir started playing. However, they did say that one waiver was granted for the 2016-17 season and another for a different athlete in the 2017-18 season.

The WNBA permits players to wear religious head coverings, but no player has ever competed in one in the U.S. since the league’s inception in 1996. International soccer’s governing body, FIFA, only allowed players to wear hijab in 2014.

Earlier this year, Abdul-Qaadir played in the Arab Women’s Sports Tournament, where more than 1,000 women competed in basketball, volleyball, table tennis, fencing, archery, shooting, karate and more. The basketball competition allowed teams to have up to three American players, and she played for a team from Somalia and scored 31 points in a game against Jordan. Abdul-Qaadir said she was recruited afterward by several pro teams outside of the U.S. but declined the offers.

Although the hiatus from high-level basketball hasn’t diminished Abdul-Qaadir’s love for the sport, it forced her to focus on other things.

In 2015, she earned a master’s degree from Indiana State and started her own campaign, Muslim Girls Hoop Too, which encourages Muslim girls to play sports and openly express their faith. Two years later, Abdul-Qaadir got married and started Dribbling Down Barriers with her husband, A.W. Massey. The program facilitates play between Muslim and non-Muslim athletes to get people of different faiths to be comfortable with each other. She now works as an athletic director and volleyball coach for a pre-K through eighth grade school in London, Ontario.

Now, she spends time sharing her story and encouraging Muslim girls to play basketball.

“I need to stand up for the girls who are going to come after me,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “If I don’t open up these doors for them, who’s going to do it? And there’s going to be another Muslim girl who wants to ball and be good enough to play and they’re going to have to make this decision, and I don’t want them to.”

Eryn Mathewson is the editorial coordinator for the Rhoden Fellows program. She loves Indian food, Terry Gross, and hopes to run an Olympic qualifying time for the half marathon before she dies.