A lot of people would call Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir an overachiever. But then, who are any of us to put a limit on what a 5-foot-4 Muslim girl from Springfield, Mass., is supposed to achieve in this life?
As a high school point guard at New Leadership Charter School, Abdul-Qaadir shattered the state scoring record (for boys and girls) that was previously held by female hoops legend Rebecca Lobo, finishing with 3,070 career points in five varsity seasons. Lobo played six. As a senior, Abdul-Qaadir averaged 42 points per game.
Abdul-Qaadir graduated No. 1 in her class in 2009 and accepted a scholarship to the University of Memphis. That same year, she was invited to the White House for an iftar dinner with President Barack Obama during Ramadan.
In college, Abdul-Qaadir overcame a serious knee injury as a true freshman and went on to average 10.6 points and 2.4 steals as a redshirt junior for the Tigers. She also made the Dean’s List and was named to the Conference USA All-Academic Team. She graduated from Memphis in four years with a degree in Exercise Science, then transferred to Indiana State University for her 2013-14 redshirt senior season. While working toward a master’s degree in Coaching, Abdul-Qaadir led the Sycamores in scoring with 14.2 points per game — winning Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year and being named MVC First Team All-Conference and Second Team Scholar-Athlete.
Along the way, she made history by becoming the first NCAA Division-I athlete to play in a basketball game while wearing hijab — covering her arms and legs with long sleeves, with a headscarf to cover her hair. (In 2004, University of South Florida forward Andrea Armstrong won the right to wear hijab after challenging a team rule prohibiting it, but she left the team before appearing in a game.) For Abdul-Qaadir’s groundbreaking efforts, she was presented with the “Most Courageous” award by the United States Basketball Writers Association at the 2011 Final Four.
But today, the same hijab that once brought Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir national acclaim has created a roadblock to her dream of playing professional basketball.
The sport’s international governing body, FIBA, has a rule prohibiting players from wearing headscarves on the court. As recently as 2009, FIBA defended the rule as one designed to prevent injuries as well as maintain a “religiously neutral” environment, identifying the hijab as a religious symbol. (FIBA has not, however, taken any action against religious tattoos, such as crosses.) More recently, the organization has backed away from the religious aspect and has upheld the rule on the grounds that headscarves are not part of the “official uniform.”
I’ve reached out to FIBA multiple times seeking an explanation of the rule and a comment on the reasoning and spirit of the rule, but have not received a response.
In the meantime, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and any other Muslim woman who chooses to honor her religion by wearing hijab cannot play in FIBA tournaments (e.g. the Olympics, the World Championships, etc.) or in FIBA-affiliated pro leagues. Never mind that a woman playing basketball in hijab is not much different than LeBron James wearing a headband or Carmelo Anthony wearing arm-sleeves, both of which FIBA allows.
The no-headscarves rule essentially bans Muslim women from playing international basketball.
FIBA has come under some scrutiny in years past for the rule. In 2009, Sura Al-Shawk, a Muslim basketball player in Switzerland (where FIBA’s headquarters are located) was told her team would have to forfeit any games she appeared in while wearing hijab. That same year, the Iranian national team withdrew from the Asia Championships because its players wouldn’t be allowed to wear hijab. In 2013, the Maldives national team pulled out of the FIBA Asia Under-18 tournament because of the no-headscarves dress code.
None of these stories, however, piqued much of an international interest or sparked a widespread global call to action. So even though FIFA (soccer), the IAAF (track and field) and the International Weightlifting Federation (to name a few) now allow headscarves and hijab — proving that Muslim women can practice their religion and compete in their sport at the same time without either institution falling apart — FIBA still clings to a rule that is clearly discriminatory. And the victims are women like Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir.
With her basketball future still in limbo, Abdul-Qaadir talked to Ummah Sports about where she can go from here and where she has been that got her to this point.
UMMAH SPORTS: Where are you right now as far as the FIBA situation and trying to play pro ball overseas?
My goal is still to play professionally. Playing overseas is what I’m looking forward to. But two weeks ago I got the bad news that FIBA doesn’t allow Muslim women to cover their hair in professional basketball. I’m looking for loopholes within the system and maybe I can find some way around it, but I don’t know.
It’s hard because I feel like I’ve come really far and broken down some barriers as far as religion and basketball. Now that I’m finally at a place where I want to be, to find out I can’t play kind of sucks. It’s unfortunate. And not just for me, because there are going to be more Muslim young women after me that are going to be good at basketball, and you’re closing an opportunity to them.
What can be done to change the rule?
I’m not sure. I’m hoping this will get out there and maybe go viral and people will get behind it. I may have to start a petition. Other than that, I don’t know right now which route to go. FIFA recently lifted a ban on headscarves for soccer, but FIBA hasn’t done the same. Maybe it’s because there are not a lot of Muslim women playing professionally, but it hasn’t really been made into a big issue.
This is pretty much my dream. I came all this way playing covered, and now I can’t play. Inshallah, something can be figured out.
Were you expecting to get picked in the WNBA draft this year?
No. I actually went to a combine and played in front of some WNBA scouts, but there are a lot of politics in that whole situation. If you don’t come from a Big East or ACC or SEC school — one of the big-time schools — you’re kind of overlooked. Honestly, I would rather have the chance to play overseas; it’s a better experience and you get to see parts of the world you’re not used to.
If there’s no resolution with FIBA in the near future, what will you be looking to do career-wise?
I got my bachelor’s in Exercise Science at Memphis. With that, I was thinking of going into physical therapy. That’s one of my options. At Indiana State, I started my master’s in Coaching. I have another two years in that program. I would love to be around the game as much as possible, and I think I have the mindset and leadership ability to coach. If nothing really breaks through in basketball as far as playing, I’ll go back to school and push toward a career in one of those fields.
How would you describe your game?
Fast-paced. I like to run up and down the court. I like to play on-ball defense. I love getting steals. On offense, I would say I’m a slasher; I really like trying to cross people over and getting to the basket to make acrobatic layups. Overall, I’d say I try to play like Allen Iverson or Rajon Rondo.
How was your senior year at Indiana State?
It was everything that I wanted it to be. There were a few changes made at Memphis that I didn’t really agree with at the time, so when I made the decision to leave, I wanted to go somewhere I could help a team out — maybe get a team to the postseason that hadn’t been there in a few years. (Note: Abdul-Qaadir helped lead the Sycamores to the WNIT, where they lost to Marquette in the first round.) I got to play my game at Indiana State and wasn’t hindered in any way, and that’s how I wanted my senior year to be.
Of all places, why did you transfer to Indiana State?
I wanted to go somewhere where we’d have a chance to win a conference championship. It came down to Indiana State and Ohio State. I don’t want to say there wouldn’t have been a chance to win at Ohio State, but the Big Ten is really tough. I had been through so much adversity at Memphis, I didn’t want it to be a huge struggle my senior year. I thought Indiana State had a chance at winning the conference, and though we came up short, we got very close.
Terre Haute, Ind., probably isn’t a place people think of when they think of big Muslim communities.
There’s actually a lot of Muslims that attend school there, and there’s a mosque right down the street from campus. There was kind of a language barrier at first because a lot of the Muslim students are from places like Saudi Arabia where English isn’t their first language, but it wasn’t hard to find a Muslim community.
What kind of reactions did you get from ISU fans and just from people around town?
I didn’t have any incidents or people giving me any trouble, at least not at school. All the fans, everybody on campus, they welcomed me with open arms.
One time when we traveled and played at Bradley (Peoria, Ill.), there was a fan that was taunting me and talking about my hijab, but I told the referee and told my coach, and they talked to the fan and let him know he was being ridiculous. That’s really the only negative incident I can remember.
What about when you were at Memphis? How was the Muslim community there?
It was great. There were some Muslim schools out there for young children, and a lot of Muslim girls would come and watch me play. There was a Muslim family that kind of took me in; the mother became kind of my second mother. They were very supportive when I was in Memphis. I actually missed them a lot when I transferred, but we stay in touch. It’s good to have those kind of supportive people in your life.
Your first game at Memphis was a historic moment in that you were the first D-I player to wear hijab on the court. Did it feel like a big deal at the time?
In the beginning it didn’t feel like it, because I just wanted to play basketball and I was doing whatever it took for me to play. But then I did so many interviews afterward and started getting messages from young girls and women from other countries telling me I was an inspiration to other people — not just Muslim women, but women in general. I thought, “Maybe I am doing something special.” I started to appreciate it more and feel good about it. Once you realize you’re doing something that can help people in the future, you feel good about it.
Were you raised in a Muslim family?
Yes. My mother converted when she was 23; she was raised Christian. My parents weren’t always together; they were friends from their childhood and met up again later in life. My dad converted so they could get married.
Growing up, when you reached a certain level of maturity and had a chance to choose your own path, what made you stick with Islam?
The only time I felt like I had trouble being Muslim was when I started having to cover myself. You know, I didn’t have to cover before I reached womanhood, so it was a challenging time because I was so used to doing things a certain way. When you start wearing hijab, it changes you as a person. People looked at me differently. I thought my friends were going to think different of me. People would always ask me questions about it and I had to explain what was going on.
I think basketball really helped me, though. Playing basketball and being Muslim have gone hand-in-hand, and really helped me become a better Muslim. After a while it was like my brand, something to live up to. I liked being different. I liked being unique. I liked being “The Muslim basketball player.” Basketball definitely helped me stay on the straight path and stay faithful to Islam.
What about Islam most appeals to you?
I would say the discipline that we acquire with everything we do. Praying five times a day, being able to fast … this religion keeps you on your toes, and that coincides with how life is. You always have to be ready for whatever. And I feel like I haven’t been Muslim that long. I really only started practicing seriously when I was a teenager.
I also feel like Islam keeps you away from wrongdoing. That’s really valuable in college, when you have friends and teammates who are drinking and smoking and everything. I just never gave in to any of that because of what I believe in. That the strength and discipline I’ve acquired from my religion.
Plus, Islam is simple. It’s not confusing. We believe in one God. We believe Prophet Muhammad and the messengers. There’s no confusion in what you should believe in, which is great about my religion.
Have you ever been confronted by people who say you shouldn’t be playing basketball as a Muslim woman?
Not directly. I’m sure some people have talked about me, maybe in the community as I was growing up. But all the people who are important to me have supported me 100 percent. So I couldn’t care less what other people think. As time went on, I was embraced by Muslim communities in other states. I’ve spoken at conferences about what I’ve done. So I’ve never felt discouraged in any way.
When did you start playing basketball?
I started playing when I was around four years old. All of my brothers and sisters played basketball — well, one of my sisters didn’t; we called her “The Princess” (laughs). We had a Little Tykes hoop in the dining room and my brothers would get on their knees so they were my height and we’d play. They would bully me and block all of my shots, but I think that was good for me. I played on my first team at the YMCA in Springfield.
Did you play any other sports growing up?
I played tennis and soccer and I did kung fu. I took swimming classes, too. Soccer wasn’t my forte. I liked tennis — my brother and I both played — but something happened with the team we were playing on and it just kind of stopped. I actually loved kung fu. I was pretty good. I got up to a blue belt, which I think is pretty close to a red belt.
When did you realize you had a future in basketball?
I didn’t really know too much about college basketball until I was about 14. I’d always played on boys teams when I was younger; it was a level up from girls basketball. But as I got older my mother wasn’t comfortable with me playing with boys, so then I started playing AAU basketball on girls teams. That’s when scouts started showing up and I started getting recruited. It kind of hit me then that maybe I am good enough to play at the next level, whether it was Division-II or Division-I. I got my first recruiting letter in eighth grade, from UCLA. That was pretty cool.
Why did you choose Memphis coming out of high school?
It was kind of the same reason why I picked Indiana State. There was no dominant team winning their conference every year like a UConn or Tennessee; the Conference USA championship was always up in the air every year and any team could take it. They had a new coaching staff and I wanted to be part of something new.
I didn’t realize back then that recruiting is a business and people tell you what you want to hear. There were a few bumps in the road at Memphis. If I knew what I know now, I would probably rethink what I did coming out of high school. But everything happens for a reason and you learn from it.
One of those bumps in the road was tearing your ACL and sitting out your freshman year. How were you able to get over that injury physically and mentally?
It really wasn’t an issue mentally; I was always there mentally. I figured if God wanted me to tear it again, it’s gonna happen. I went out with a mindset like, “This is what I do.” I trusted my rehab, and if it was supposed to happen again, it would happen. Physically, it took a little longer than expected — about nine months to come back.
How have you handled Ramadan and fasting during times when you might be in training or during the season?
The only time I had to fast during basketball was at Memphis, and the coaches knew my situation. We were going to Italy for summer league, so we started practicing earlier than usual and it coincided with Ramadan. I practiced to my comfort level, and if I got thirsty I’d stop. I’d go until I felt a certain type of way. The coaches understood that’s the way it had to be. Sometimes I’d sit out of morning workouts, but I’d make it up at night with the strength coach after iftar.
It was so hot all the time in Memphis that all I wanted to do was drink water. Fasting actually isn’t as tough as people think it might be. I’d get thirsty more than anything; I was never really that hungry.
Speaking of iftar, you were invited to the White House in 2009 for an iftar dinner. How was that experience?
It was surreal. I got to meet President Obama, and he’s so laid back you wouldn’t even think he’s the man running the United States. He called me up during his speech and spoke a little about me. I ate right next to him, too. When I walked in, they were like, “You have the best seat in the house.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then they brought me to my seat and my name card was right next to the president. I was like, “No way I’m about to eat dinner next to the president.” I asked for hot sauce and he didn’t mind (laughs). He said if I’m ever back in D.C. we’d play one-on-one.
You’re one of those people who seems to succeed at everything they try. What has been the key to your success both in sports and academically?
It takes discipline and focus. And it’s OK to be who you are and still do what you want to do in life. You don’t have to change for anyone. I haven’t changed who I am through this whole process. I wasn’t going to change just because I wasn’t accepted by everyone.
When it comes to sports, you just have to know that it’s not always about the game, because that can all come to an end. When I tore my ACL, I realized that this could happen to anybody. But school would always be there. I feel like education is the biggest part of being successful. And if you have a skill or a hobby that can get you a free education, utilize it.
What advice would you give to young Muslim woman who wants to follow your example?
Whenever you’re in a tough spot, just pray about it. I know that’s a cliché term, but with us it’s serious. We pray a lot more than other religions.
And as Muslim women, we should take pride in how we look. Don’t worry if people talk about you. We’re unique. There are only a few of us out here playing sports, so if you’re going to do it, why not be a game-changer?