FIBA relaxes anti-hijab rule with 2-year ‘testing phase’

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir led Indiana State in scoring as a senior with 14.2 points per game. (Photo: ISU Athletic Media Relations)

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir led Indiana State in scoring as a senior with 14.2 points per game. (Photo: ISU Athletic Media Relations)

What may seem like a long overdue and well-deserved victory for those urging basketball’s international governing body (FIBA) to eliminate a discriminatory headgear rule is but a small, slow step in the right direction.

After a pair of meetings in Spain over the past month surrounding the FIBA World Cup, the organization announced that while they have not entirely rewritten or tossed out Article 4.4.2 — which allows players in FIBA-endorsed leagues and tournaments to wear headbands but prohibits headgear such as headscarves, turbans and yarmulkes — they will begin a two-year “testing phase” to explore lifting a ban that impacts Muslim women, Sikh men and Jewish men around the world.

Over the next two years, national federations must petition FIBA to allow players to wear previously-prohibited headgear. If the petition is approved, the federation will have to submit follow-up reports twice a year. FIBA will also allow players to wear headgear in 3-on-3 basketball competitions — such as the one held at the recent Youth Olympic Games. The rule will be evaluated again in 2015 and 2016, though not in time for a potential rule change to be permanent in time for the 2016 Olympics.

“We welcome this policy change by FIBA because it allows Muslims, Sikhs and others who wear religious head coverings to take part in the sport that they love while maintaining their beliefs,” said Ibrahim Hooper, National Communications Director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “FIBA should be congratulated for responding positively to all those who sought reasonable religious accommodation for athletes of all faiths.”

While news of the testing phase is certainly a step in the right direction, Alhamdulillah, it is a step that appears too small and unnecessarily cautious.

Following Tuesday’s announcement by FIBA, I spoke with Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, the former Indiana State University basketball star whose interview with Ummah Sports in May helped reignite international interest in a discriminatory rule that has existed for years. Abdul-Qaadir, who made history four years ago by becoming the first NCAA Division-1 basketball player to wear hijab on the court, said she is still unclear on what the new ruling means for her and her goal of playing professional basketball overseas.

“I feel like this is just (FIBA’s) way of putting it off to the side and taking some of the heat off,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “All of a sudden they had all of these organizations joining in the movement, so it seems like they just did this to get the fire off their back. ‘Let’s not make a permanent decision, let’s make it a trial.’

“Alhamdulillah, I’m glad they made the decision because I understand change doesn’t always happen fast, but I still don’t know what this means,” Abdul-Qaadir said.

What it appears to mean is that while Abdul-Qaadir and other Muslim female basketball players in the U.S. will now be eligible to play for Team USA in FIBA competition, for example, they still would not be able to play for a FIBA-endorsed professional team without being in violation of Article 4.4.2.

That was the dilemma Abdul-Qaadir faced this year when she tried to find a pro team overseas, and the dilemma faced by Indira Kaljo, who played her college ball at Tulane University and had played uncovered overseas in Ireland and Bosnia before deciding to wear hijab. Kaljo, a Bosnian-American who dreams of playing for Bosnia’s national team someday, was unable to sign with another pro team after deciding that she was going to play in hijab.

Contacted on Tuesday, Kaljo — who started an online petition months ago to get the headgear rule changed — said she’s still not entirely sure what the ruling means for her professional prospects, but she is consulting with CAIR and FIBA to get the full picture.

“I don’t know how effective (Tuesday’s) decision was. I think the ban needs to be obliterated,” said Abdul-Qaadir, who has returned to Indiana State to finish her master’s degree and serve as the Director of Operations for the women’s basketball program. “I don’t get what they’re trying to prove.

“At first I was excited when I saw the headline, but after I read the whole thing, I think people are being misled,” Abdul-Qaadir added. “It’s not over. I’ve been getting all of these congratulatory emails and texts, but as far as I know I still really can’t do anything. I still don’t think I can sign with a pro team.”

FIBA’s primary stance has been that the headgear ban is not about religious discrimination but about safety. Although in my years covering basketball on the professional, college, high school, international and even playground level, I haven’t seen where a headscarf, turban or yarmulke would be such an injury risk that it takes two years of testing to determine whether it’s safe. I’ve seen players like LeBron James and Rajon Rondo have their headbands (which would be approved by FIBA) pulled down over their eyes briefly. A hijab, turban or yarmulke would be no more dangerous than that.

So I asked Abdul-Qaadir: In all of her years playing high school basketball and college basketball while wearing hijab, through hundreds of games and thousands of practices over the last decade, has her headscarf ever caused an accident or an injury to herself, a teammate or an opponent?

“Never,” she said.

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