Amaiya Zafar no longer has to choose between her religion and the sport she loves.
The 16-year-old boxer from Oakdale, Minnesota, made history this weekend when she became the first athlete wearing hijab to compete in a USA Boxing-sanctioned match. While this is a legitimate cause for celebration, there are still sports — including basketball when played on the international level — that currently bar women from playing while wearing religious headgear.
FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, meets this May and is expected to approve a modification of its headgear rule that would allow hijabs, and other religious headgear such as yarmulkes and turbans, to be worn in international competition. The change, however, was a long time in coming and might not have ever happened if a number of prominent athletes, including the Liberty’s Tina Charles, and tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, hadn’t signed and published a letter on social media early this year that called for the end of the ban.
The rule as it currently stands has barred athletes such as Bliqis Abdul-Qaadir, who became the first NCAA Division I player to compete while wearing hijab in 2010, from playing in professional leagues abroad. It also bars any girl or woman playing on a U.S. National team from wearing headgear because they compete on using FIBA rules.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington D.C.-based Muslim advocacy and civil rights group, has played a supporting role in getting headgear rules modified in boxing, weightlifting, Olympic fencing, and soccer. It also recently got the state of Maryland’s athletic association to lift its rarely followed ban on headgear after a referee refused to let her compete in a playoff game unless she took her hijab off. Spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said that the council sees this as an important civil rights issue.
“Any type of athletic activity we believe is empowering to young people whether it be girls or boys,” Hooper said. “Particularly with the stereotypes of Muslim women and girls out there, I think it challenges stereotypes and it helps empower the individual. And it shows that they can do all the activities that any other person can do regardless of their faith.”
The rules under different sports federations do not specifically ban hijab, but the general language in which headgear is banned for so-called safety reasons inadvertently prohibits hijab during competition. It can also affect Sikh and Jewish athletes who choose to observe their faith by covering their heads.
Hooper said one of the more challenging aspects of fighting for inclusion is that it has to be done sport by sport and each sport includes multiple governing bodies.
“In high school, you have to go state by state and sometimes district by district,” Hooper said. “Then, when we go to U.S. agencies, they sometimes pass it off on their international governing body. Our position is you can’t allow international bodies to impose discriminatory policies upon you.”
In January, 53 prominent athletes decided they no longer wanted to quietly abide by FIBA’s ban on headgear. They signed an open letter to FIBA president Horacio Muratore demanding that the ban be lifted. Five days later, FIBA announced in a news release that it expected the rule change to come in May.
“Signing the petition urging FIBA to change its rule, and allow women to wear a hijab on the court was about creating a level playing field,” said Charles, who was one of nine Liberty players to sign the petition. “When I step out onto the court, I see my opponent as a fellow competitor, as another athlete. We are all striving for the same things, putting in the same amount of hard work, to be out there competing. An athlete’s religious beliefs should not prohibit them from having that opportunity.”
In this case, change was driven by the athletes themselves, who want to be able to compete against the best players in the world, regardless of where they are from or what their religious beliefs are. Not everyone seems so accepting of change. When Nike launched its Pro Hijab in March, reaction was mixed on social media with some calling for a boycott because they contend the product, set to debut in 2018, supports the oppression of women.
Considering that a fourth of the world is Muslim, it seems that the real oppression is keeping half of them from competing. It hurts both the sport itself, by limiting the talent pool, and the Muslim women athletes who would be empowered by participating in sports.
Zafar, for one, believes it is something worth fighting for. It took her three and a half years to get the USA Boxing to modify its headgear ban. Now, she has her eye on the 2020 Olympics which means she would have to get the International Boxing Association to change their rules.
Said Zafar in an interview with CNN last week: “It starts with one person and it doesn’t matter how small you are. It takes one person to spark change.”