Basketball coach, actor and spoken word poet Asma Elbadawi, 27, didn’t understand why a head covering should stop fellow Muslim women and girls from playing basketball professionally. Last month, as part of a group of global activists, she managed to overturn the ban.
“You know, a couple of years ago I started looking back at my life and questioning why I’d never gone professional.”
Asma moved from Sudan to Bradford, West Yorkshire, at one year old.
The award-winning spoken word poet has made time for us in her busy schedule of interviews. She’s keen to express her gratitude at the fact so many people are helping share the success of the group’s fight, after 130,000 people from across the world changed history by signing their petition.
From Sudan to Bradford
“I’d always played sports through my childhood, and having grown up in Yorkshire, surrounded by Muslim girls, it was normal for us to wear a hijab during games,” she said.
“Now when I think about it, I’d assumed that because I hadn’t seen sportswomen wearing hijabs on TV that there was something against it in our religion. I guess I’d assumed that women were expected to retain their modesty and playing sport didn’t align with that.”
In 2016, out of the blue, Bosnian-American professional basketball player Indira Kaljo got in touch with Asma, having spotted her being interviewed on TV. Indira explained that when she started wearing a hijab she’d been forced to give up playing.
Angry at the reasons behind the ban, Indira, together with a friend, started the #FIBAAllowHijab campaign to overturn it. The campaign petitioned the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to allow male and female players wearing religious headwear to compete professionally.
Taking on the fight for women's rights
“Indira said to me, there’s a game in Turkey, would you like to come and play? Over a couple of months we got it organised and a few of my mates from home headed over to play,” said Asma.
“It was a hijabi vs non hijabi game broadcast live on TV to showcase the fact that girls wearing hijabs weren’t allowed to play professionally.
“What they’d found was that there were so many Muslim girls who weren’t allowed to play professionally, so the standard of clubs they were allowed to play in was much lower.”
When Asma came back to Bradford she decided to take on the fight. Having been on an ICS placement with VSO in Tanzania in late 2015, she was no stranger to campaigning.
Based in a secondary school, Asma used her teaching skills to help the students work on their personal development through CV writing and employability sessions, as well as working with local enterprises in the evening to help them develop their businesses and seek funding.
The group also held gender-specific sessions where they spoke about issues in the community faced by girls, followed up with debates where both male and female students could discuss how they felt about these in a non-judgemental environment.
“I took on board everything I’d learnt about development and campaigning from ICS and thought, you know what – I’m going to give this my 100%,” she said.
While on placement, Asma had started basketball coaching classes for the boys in her host town of Lindi on Tanzania’s eastern coast. As a female, hijab-wearing Muslim coach from the UK, she went over prepared to stand out.
"Oh my god, this girl can play"
“As a woman coaching the boys, I was the talk of the town. But they were totally fine with it. They listened to me. No-one ever disrespected me. No-one ever shouted over me. Because I’d established boundaries, people were able to treat me just like they would treat my male counterparts.
“Plus, they’d seen me play,” Asma says, laughing. “They were like, oh my god, this girl can actually play. That definitely helped.”
Although Asma was busy coaching the boys, the girls weren’t left out from playing basketball – instead having their own separate sessions with another coach.
But Asma knew that off the court, girls in Tanzania can’t expect the same equality at home or in work: “Lindi was one of those cities where you can feel that women are different to men.
“Not all girls finish school. Girls take days off when they’re on their periods. We did workshops in schools and boys genuinely think a women’s place is in the kitchen. The only reason girls fail in school is because they’re given more chores than the boys.”
"You need one person kids can see like themselves in professional sport"
It was listening to these girls talk about the challenges of growing up as a girl – and Muslim – in Tanzania, and the similarities in her own personal life growing up in the UK that helped Asma realise she needed to tackle the hijab ban in basketball.
“This opportunity came from my three months on ICS. It made me so confident in myself. I realised the only reason I hadn’t gone professional was literally because of a lack of role models.
“So that’s what I set out to change. You need one person kids can look at in the Olympics or NBAs and say, they look the same as me, they’ve probably gone through similar struggles to me and I can make it. That’s why I got involved.”
Following FIFA’s 2014 U-turn on head covers in football, and the appearance at Rio of one of last year’s most talked about athletes, Ibtihaj Muhammad – America’s first Muslim Olympian to compete in a hijab – there’s been a turning tide in the sporting world.
And then in early May, after the #FIBAAllowHijab Change.org petition reached 130,000 signatures, FIBA backed down, announcing that from October this year, basketballers wearing religious headwear will be allowed to compete professionally for the first time.
“I knew the ban would be overturned,” said Asma, quietly confident. “We were already moving in a direction where sport was becoming more inclusive of women of all backgrounds.
“If FIBA hadn’t overturned the basketball hijab ban, it would have been a ‘what the hell’ moment.
“We had so much support by the end. Almost 20 women from across the world were working in their own communities on this campaign. We all had media coverage in our own countries.”
Getting families to understand
But with distance still to go in changing the image of professional Muslim sportswomen in the media, what progress still needs to be made back at home in making a career in sport a viable option for young Muslim women in the UK? Changing family attitudes is where to start, says Asma.
“We’re improving. But it’s one thing seeing someone on the TV. It’s totally another for girls watching the TV to have the family support and community support for them to do the same thing,” she says.
“Parents make decisions based on what other people say rather than what their daughter actually wants to do. Many Muslim men see sport as leisure, rather than vital to a girl’s happiness.
“The challenge now will be in re-educating our community about the benefits of sport and what it means for a girl to be able to take part.”