Hijab (Veil) is a term which has multiple images associated with it. For some it might bring to surface images of the ongoing protests in Iran by women to end the mandatory hijab, while for others, it might recall images of Muslim women in France fighting against the Hijab ban. Such duality of the meaning and interpretation of Hijab can be challenging to understand without indulging into the particular sociocultural and spiritual contexts which constitute its meaning. How do we then understand the meaning of Hijab then and the role it plays for Muslim Women?
A visit by Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir at Indiana University Bloomington organized by Muslim Women at IU helps shed light on the role of hijab in the life of Muslim women. As part of Muslim Women at IU’s ‘Empowered Women, Empower Women’ series, Abdul-Qaadir led a basketball camp for women and children at the Twin Lakes complex in Bloomington. The basketball camp provided an opportunity for mothers, both who wear hijab and those who don’t, to spend some time playing basketball without worrying about leaving their children at home. While Abdul-Qaadir helped women and girls through beginner level practice sessions, her husband and parents were there to support her and took care of her children so that she doesn’t get distracted.
Simultaneously, Kiandra Browne, a Muslim undergraduate student, and player for IU women’s basketball team who also wears hijab, joined Abdul-Qaadir to conduct the camp with the children accompanying their mothers. Reflecting on the experience, Abdul-Qaadir said, “Honestly, I cried today at the game watching her (Kiandra) play because when I first started playing back in college (2009), there weren’t any of us. I was the only one. So, to see more Muslim women in sport actually physically bearing the faith, wearing the Hijab, in front of people who have no idea about Islam is a beautiful thing.” The camp was an opportunity for empowerment and harmony through a combined love for a sport. It was a space where none of the women were discriminated for wearing or not wearing hijab – instead the hijab became a symbol for solidarity.
The basketball camp is one of the few examples of Abdul-Qaadir’s efforts to help empower Muslim women who want to take part in sports. Visibly notable for playing basketball while wearing hijab, Abdul-Qaadir has not only set all-time records in Massachusetts by scoring 3,070 points in her high school career but has also made history as the first player in NCAA to playing in a hijab. Due to her courage and success, she was also invited by President Barack Obama to the White House as the first Muslim woman to play covered in collegiate basketball. Abdul-Qaadir bagged numerous achievements throughout her career and continues to do so. All this while, Abdul-Qaadir remained persistent in following her religious beliefs pertaining to modesty as a practicing Muslim woman.
However, Abdul-Qaadir contribution to women in sports extends beyond her own life as she has continued to strive to help other women in sports who face challenges in their sports because of Hijab. In an inspiring talk followed by the camp, Abdul-Qaadir shared her own experience as a Hijabi Muslim woman playing basketball and the challenges she encountered in her sport. Abdul-Qaadir talked about her journey as a basketball player wearing hijab during the lecture and dinner hosted by Muslim Women at IU. Her talk provided a moment of reflection and spirituality as she shared the moments where her faith was challenged, and she had to choose between her passion for basketball and the practice of hijab. She shared her experience of how to continue playing professionally in Europe for the FIBA tournament, she was required to take off her hijab due to the rule that prohibits headgear larger than five inches.
According to Abdul-Qaadir, this was a moment when her faith and believes were put to a test. In that moment as she shared her story, many of us in the audiences were reminded of the moments our own faith is put to a test while trying to achieve our worldly goals. Eventually, instead of choosing to take of her hijab, Abdul-Qaadir, chose to stick to her beliefs about modesty and hijab. Her story is that of patient and persistence and gives hope to all those who are tested with similar questions to their spiritual beliefs. Due to her patience, Abdul-Qaadir was able to stand up to the rules of FIBA by petitioning for an exemption to the rule. By sacrificing her own dreams of playing professionally at an international scale, she paved the way for future generations of Muslim women who face challenges in sports due to the practice of hijab. FIBA eventually ruled in her favor in 2017 providing the opportunity to other Muslim women to be able to play basketball. As Browne states, “It was because of Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir that she can dream of playing professionally in international leagues such as FIBA.”
Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is an inspiration to all Muslim women in sports who see her example of patience and sacrifice as a pathway to follow in their own sports. Today, Muslim women are challenging the policies against hijab in sports such as triathletes, swimming, football, and Olympics among many other sports due to role models like Abdul-Qaadir. Her story is an example of how hijab is not just empowerment or just resistance for Muslim women, rather it’s both – above all it is a symbol of solidarity and acceptance.
Muslim Women at IU: Muslim Women is a diverse organization of women, men, Muslims and non-Muslims that works for the empowerment of Muslim women and their communities. Follow there Instagram page for more information: Muslim Women at IU (@muslimwomeniu) • Instagram photos and videos
Narmeen Ijaz is a doctoral student in Media Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington with a minor in Anthropology. Her research focuses on how patriarchal and heteronormative power dynamics in political, colonial, and dictatorial regimes have led to the emergence of new female subjectivities through non-fiction film cultures in South Asia. Ijaz has worked as a documentary filmmaker for international human rights organizations such as UNICEF-ROSA and Youth LEAD. She was invited to present her work at the Women and the Silent Screen (2022) and Visible Evidence (2022) conferences. Ijaz is also a recipient of the Decolonizing Representation of Muslim Women in Media Fellowship at UC Davis and the HASTAC scholarship (IU) for her virtual documentary installation. She presented her documentary film The Spaces in Between at the Rai Film Festival Conference 2023.