As I am sure most of us know by now, discussions around the hijab are a staple food for the media and the general public, and most of the time, for all the wrong reasons, which do not merit regurgitation.
But if there is a good reason for one who dons it to reflect upon the latest controversy, it comes with the recent overturning of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) ban on Muslim women wearing the hijab while playing basketball.
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Had it been a story detailing the ban of the veil by a Muslim or a non-Muslim majority country or the listings of a commentator who deems a polyester or viscose item as an affront to Western civilisation, most Muslim women would have probably licked their fingers and turned the page. Why? Because the discourse on the real experiences of Muslim women – a discourse that does not present them as “victims” – has moved at a snail’s pace.
As Love in a Headscarf author, Shelina Janmohamed, says “It feels like no one is listening”. That no one seems to be listening does not necessarily mean that hijab-wearing Muslim women should seek overt validation in what can be a very personal choice. It is about the appreciation that a piece of scarf is not the be-all-end-all of who and what the Muslim woman represents. Earlier this month, an iron gate was broken down in the arena of basketball.
Hijab is not an obstacle for Muslim athletes
On May 4, FIBA, in its first ever mid-term congress, overturned a ban on a whole variety of headgear such as hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes and allowed these items to be worn during basketball games.
Prior to this, the organisation had revised its rulings on the headgear rule in September 2014, with exceptions granted at the national level as part of a two-year testing period. The FIBA took this decision because it believed that its previous policies relating to headwear were incompatible with traditional dress codes including the hijab. Indeed, this ban has caused several Muslim women teams to miss out on playing in many arenas.
The FIBA’s central board approved the proposal to reverse the ban, stating that the new rules will take effect in October this year. In a statement, the organisation said that the new regulation on headgear is “developed in a way that minimizes the risk of injuries as well as preserve consistency of the colour of the uniform”.
At surface level, this demonstrates that hijab can be adapted and readapted in multiple situations within public life. But more crucially, this decision also demonstrates that hijab is not an impediment to the social and cultural standing of Muslim women or women who choose to dress modestly. FIBA’s decision to revise its headgear rules is a big win for activists and sportswomen who have been tirelessly fighting to make this fact known.
There is no doubt there is still a long way to go for Muslim women in some Muslim countries to acquire full civil participation - hopefully, this repeal will be one of many stepping stones to achieve this.
Bilqis Abdul Qadir, an exceptional young woman and a college basketball player whose accomplishments had been acknowledged by former US President Barack Obama, was one of the sportswomen impacted by the ban.
She made history by being the first Division One basketball player to wear the Muslim veil, but the earlier FIBA ban blocked her chances of going into professional basketball. This conundrum had its toll, culminating in her creating a documentary in 2016 entitled “Life without Basketball”.
In the short documentary, Bilqis said, “It’s hard being a young Muslim woman in America. It takes strength to walk outside and look different than anyone else … They have this stereotype, that they [Muslim women] are quiet and they’re submissive … when I play basketball, I worry about nothing … but now it’s just a huge question mark.”
Participating in society
For Muslim girls and women like Bilqis, this conversation actually extends beyond the scope of the veil. It is about all females being afforded the opportunity and privileges akin to their respective societies. It is about women who dress modestly and adhere to religious dress not to have their religiosity as a marker which prevents them from fully participating in society.
British Sudanese basketball player, Asma Elbadawi, who is also a coach and a spoken word poet, has also campaigned to overturn FIBA’s hijab ban. In reaction to the repeal of the ban, she told me, “I could see this day coming mainly because other sport governing bodies have already relaxed their rules regarding their religious attire. However, it was a thought, so for it to have manifested into a reality is an indescribable feeling.”
Elbadawi thinks that it’s important for Muslim girls to have positive role models in an area that they may not feel they can carve potential for themselves in. She says, “Since basketball is one of the most popular sports right now, there is scope for Muslims to be seen in a different light and show their willingness to integrate into society.”
I would go further and say that Muslim women have, for the most part, integrated in and contributed to both Western and non-Western societies, across different periods and places. It is about visibility and real representation on all levels – not only in sporting circles, but in other areas of life. There is no doubt there is still a long way to go for Muslim women in some Muslim countries to acquire full civic participation – hopefully, this repeal will be one of many stepping stones to achieve this.
Sport has always been an arena for great social and political change, and while FIBA would argue that the original ban was down primarily to health and safety on the part of participants, its overturn is no less significant.
It is about the visibility and merit of sports professionals who happen to dress modestly. It is about basketball doing hijab, because it can.
Adama Juldeh Munu is a broadcast producer and journalist. She is currently embarking on a Masters degree in Middle East politics at the University of London.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.