A whole new ball game
Kieran Yates meets a young woman who is helping to change the face of basketball around the world.
"It’s men that are making the rules. None of these men wear hijabs. The rules were made a long time ago and hadn’t been reviewed."
Asma Elbadawi is discussing the International Basketball Federation’s landmark ruling in May to lift its ban on head coverings, including hijabs. Along with a group of 12 other women, this Sudan-born, Bradford-based basketball player has changed the sport she loves for ever.
Earlier this year, 27-year-old Elbadawi joined forces with other female Muslim basketball players from around the world. Some of them were playing as professionals in Indonesia and across the Gulf but they were barred from playing in the Women’s National Basketball Association in North America because wearing a hijab while playing in the WBNA was banned.
A Bosnian-American player, Indira Kaljo, instigated the campaign to overturn this rule last year. Elbadawi explains that Kaljo and Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir (the first Muslim woman to play basketball in a hijab at collegiate level in America) contacted her and other hijab-wearing players around the world to apply pressure on the federation (FIBA).
“It was me and 12 other activists,” Elbadawi explains. “From Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nigeria, America, Turkey – all basketball players who just couldn't play professionally.” A change.org campaign and petition received more than 130,000 signatures and the #FIBAallowhijab hashtag went viral. FIBA responded by saying it needed a period to test its preferred sports hijabs and the whole process has taken around 18 months, with the ban set to be lifted in October this year.
“It was so long,” says Elbadawi, rolling her eyes. “They should have approved it a lot sooner but they didn't until this year. They were really strict about it but I knew they would lift it as FIFA [world football’s governing body] lifted it in 2014. Originally, they said that they were worried about people overheating and pins catching, but with sports hijabs you have a lightweight mesh you just slip on so that’s just not true.”
Elbadawi is now one of the most well-known female basketball players in the UK. At school she played rounders, was captain of the netball team and took up jujitsu, but it was only when she got to university that she began playing basketball. And it wasn’t easy at first. “I was so scared that whenever someone threw a ball at me I would just panic and throw it straight back,” she says.
After overcoming this fear and taking up the game, she spent some time in Lindi, south-east Tanzania, in 2015 with International Citizen Service (ICS), a volunteering scheme for 18-25 year olds led by VSO. There, she taught basketball skills to local girls and boys. “It changed the whole way I played,” she says. “A lot of the girls weren’t going to play professionally so I had to make the game about self-development skills like teamwork and thinking about each other.”
Elbadawi is sensitive and self-aware, which is partly why she’s also had success as a spoken word artist. She won a BBC poetry competition and her work features in The Things I Would Tell You, an anthology of British Muslim women writers published this year.
Her poems are delivered with the same light touch and warmth she displays in conversation. One of her favourites, Belongings, deals with being a tomboy and the prospect of marriage. In the video of her performing it, she is in traditional bridal make-up and dress, reminding you that she is not just one thing – she is a Muslim, an athlete, a woman, a bride-to-be.
The journey to professional basketball has been challenging, and not just because of the drills and laborious training hours. For example, she recalls attending a training camp in Siberia where she was the only non-white female player. “When we went out people stared at us and the boys would say, ‘stay close to us’. The only other black woman I saw was at the airport on the way out.”
When I ask Elbadawi whether she has a favourite pre-game soundtrack she feigns embarrassment and admits: “I actually listen to the Quran audiobook on my phone. I know it’s not very hype but I get nerves!” Her preparation for games also includes channeling the version of herself that is most like her favourite player, superstar LeBron James “He’s a beast on the court! I try and channel a bit of him, when I’m feeling weak, inshallah.”
She has not played competitively for 18 months, as the hijab campaign has taken up so much of her time, but she is “itching to get back on court”. She will get her wish later this year as she will be playing as part of an all-star Bradford team, the Falcons.
The sport has taken her around the world, including Sudan, Malaysia, Tanzania and to the African Women and Sport Conference in Botswana. And there are so many young girls getting involved in basketball in her local community – Elbadawi coaches them – that she’s considering bringing out her own range of hijabs after being asked so frequently about them.
In her poem Belongings, Elbadawi asks: “How is it that we erase the history of a woman as if nothing mattered before her wedding day?” As she gets ready to leave our meeting, fixing her hijab and tying her laces, you get the sense that not being remembered or noticed isn’t something that Asma Elbadawi has to worry about.
International Citizen Service (ICS) is a volunteering opportunity for 18 to 25-year-olds, led by VSO. It gives young people the chance to work side-by-side with local volunteers, to make a meaningful contribution to fighting poverty. Read more about ICS here.