For Muslim girls who love basketball, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is arguably the biggest trailblazer.
“I kind of sacrificed my career for the greater good,” said Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. “I still miss basketball very much, but I see the fruits of my sacrifice now.”
Abdul-Qaadir, 29, who now lives in London, Ont., with her husband and five-month old son, led a four year-battle against an International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rule that banned religious head coverings on the court. She won.
“I knew that I had to stand for something and I had to stand for the Muslim girls who were going to come after me and possibly play,” she said. “I wanted to see more Muslim girls who practiced wearing the hijab to have that opportunity to pursue a sport.”
Abdul-Qaadir, who is the leading high school point scorer for both boys and girls in Massachusetts — an achievement that took her to the White House in 2009 — went on to play for the University of Memphis in Tennessee where she was the first woman to play in a hijab in NCAA Division I.
Abdul-Qaadir met Barack Obama again five years later. “I was invited back and we played a shooting game in his backyard on his own court, and I beat him.”
Four-year fight sidelines career
But when Abdul-Qaadir wanted to play professionally in Europe, FIBA said she couldn’t — not if she was going to wear her head scarf.
“When I was faced with that crossroad of basically choosing between my faith and my passion, I was really torn. I was having thoughts about taking my hijab off to play,” said Abdul-Qaadir, who instead put her career on hold and fought the ruling.
“I would never want another Muslim girl to have to sacrifice and have to choose,” she said.
By the time FIBA ruled in her favour in 2017, she had already given up her dream of playing professionally, and was training other Muslim girls under the name ‘Muslim Girls Hoop Too.’
“A lot of times girls don’t have those opportunities or they’re not provided the space to feel safe and not be policed for what they wear,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “I wanted to provide a space where they could come and play and practice their faith and shoot hoops at the same time without anybody telling them that they can’t.”
Gym opening in London
Abdul-Qaadir began travelling North America hosting talks and training camps, and it was a couple of visits to London, Ont., that prompted community leaders to offer both Abdul-Qaadir and her husband, Abdulwaahid Massey — a successful basketball coach in his own right — jobs at the London Islamic School.
“It was a no-brainer for my husband and I. We had just gotten married and we were looking for a new place to live. And we were like, why not Canada?” said Abdul-Qaadir, who is off on maternity leave with her five-month old son.
“We definitely don’t want to go back to the States right now. We are very grateful for Canada and just being here and being welcomed with open arms.”
Now, the couple is opening a gym in east London, in the basement of the Oxbury Centre Mall at the corner of Oxford Street East and Highbury Avenue. The first crop of players will come through the doors this Saturday.
“With COVID, of course, we’re following certain guidelines and protocols. However, we just put out a program for a weekend and it sold out. It’s full,” said Abdul-Qaadir. The couple will host the same group of kids each weekend for the next five weeks.