KARAMAH’s Letter to FIBA to Allow Muslim Women Basketball Players to Wear Headscarf

Date: 8/10/2016

August 10, 2016

To: FIBA Technical Commission; FIBA Central Board
From: Qasim Rashid, Director of Civil Rights and Policy KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights

Dear FIBA, I write to you today on behalf of Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and her request to play professional women’s basketball while observing her Islamic obligation of a headscarf. I earnestly encourage FIBA to modify its rules and permit Ms. Abdul-Qaadir to play while observing her headscarf for the following reasons:

1. Article 4.4.2 of the FIBA Official Basketball Rules (“the Rule”) is outdated and discriminatory. As Simon Wilkinson, FIBA Communications Coordinator, acknowledged in a recent email to Ms. Abdul-Qaadir: FIBA has received demands from countries in Asia and the Middle East in particular with a view to change regulations in order to allow women players to wear the hijab or other religious headscarves/clothes (some of them covering the full body). The FIBA rules appear to have been written with a North American and European athlete in mind. However, as FIBA represents international play, the rules should be updated to more accurately reflect the growing involvement of athletes who hail from or who practice Asian and Middle East faiths and cultures. In doing so, FIBA would only further advance its mission to “make basketball more popular,” and to “bring people together and unite them in one basketball community.”[1] Likewise, among FIBA’s stated values, being “Progressive to drive change” and being “Open to everybody, everywhere,” are compelling reasons to update the Rule to accommodate the request to permit players to wear the headscarf.[2] Moreover, refusal to update the Rule to include a head scarf risks discriminating against the world’s roughly 800 million Muslim women who may observe a headscarf—further alienating them from basketball. Likewise, it risks discriminating against women from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sabien, and other faith backgrounds who may also observe some form of headscarf. To be sure, this discrimination would not only be religious, but risks violating FIBA’s own stated mission and values to unite people and be open to everybody.

2. A headscarf functions better than a 5 cm headband. The Rule is subjective so changing it to be more effective and efficient appears logical. The Rule permits an exception to headgear, namely “Headbands, maximum five (5) cm in width, made of non-abrasive, unicolour cloth, pliable plastic or rubber.” If headgear is in fact a risk to players, then FIBA is clearly willing to engage in some level of risk by permitting any headgear at all. As Simon Wilkinson explained to Ms. Abdul-Qaadir in the aforementioned email, “This article makes provision for only one exception – headbands no wider than 5 centimetres (sic) which allow for hair and sweat to be held back in order not to disturb the player.” By that same principle, Ms. Abdul-Qaadir seeks to wear a headscarf to hold her hair and sweat back as to not disturb her. We are not aware of any scientific evidence mandating 5 centimeters as the only or even the best way to accomplish this. Unlike a 5 cm headband, a headscarf would not come loose or come off during intense play. In fact, a headscarf would better accomplish helping a player focus as it would absorb more sweat and hold back hair more efficiently and effectively. Based on this, it appears logical to reconsider the Rule to accommodate Ms. Abdul-Qaadir’s request to wear a headscarf to hold back sweat and hair.

3. No evidence exists to indicate a headscarf is a health risk to any players involved. In fact, a headscarf arguably increases player safety. No evidence exists to demonstrate that a headscarf is a greater risk to the player than a headband alone. On the contrary, Ms. Abdul-Qaadir’s decade-long record of playing demonstrates that neither she, nor any of the opponents she’s played against, have ever been injured as a result of her headscarf. Significantly, the headscarf has protected Ms. Abdul-Qaadir from scratches, elbows, and other potential blows to the head that come with the physicality of basketball. The New York Times reports that according to one study over a 12-year period, 109,000 teenage basketball players experienced head injuries, with many of those injuries including cuts, bruises, and blows to the head from an elbow or knee.[3] A headscarf would at least provide welcomed additional protection to cuts and bruises. Therefore, not only does a headscarf add no additional risk to players, it arguably further protects players from injury. Thus, to further protect players, Ms. Abdul-Qaadir should be permitted to wear a headscarf.

4. Numerous other professional sports and professions have permitted headgear with no measurable negative consequences. FIBA can help lead the campaign for progress. Progress is inevitable. As the world grows smaller, many professional sports leagues, the Olympics, and even military branches are permitting men and women to wear head scarves, turbans, or other headgear of the like. At the 2016 Olympics, Ibtihaj Muhammad made history by wearing her Hijab during her Fencing competition.[4] Just prior to the 2016 Olympics FIVB changed their rules to allow for competitors to wear a Hijab, with FIVB Spokesman Richard Baker stating “[t]he goal was to allow more people to play the sport of volleyball.”[5] Likewise in 2016, the United States Army changed its rules to allow Sikh soldiers to wear turbans and Muslim women to wear the Hijab.[6] In 2014 FIFA updated their rules to permit women to wear headscarves and men to wear turbans during competition.[7] FIBA’s mission to “make basketball more popular” and be open to “everybody, everywhere” aligns with the FIVB’s reasoning behind their decision to allow women to wear a Hijab in beach volleyball. In terms of physical contact and speed, Soccer and Basketball are comparable. Moreover, military service is no doubt even more physical and obviously dangerous than Basketball could (or should) ever be. Both FIFA and the US Army have independently determined that a headscarf is not a health risk to its players and soldiers. Both have made this rule change without any subsequent evidence that injuries have resulted from this decision. These practical examples should further inform FIBA’s decision regarding Ms. Abdul-Qaadir’s request to play basketball while donning a headscarf, and FIBA should permit Ms. Abdul-Qaadir to wear the headscarf while she plays professionally. In conclusion, FIBA should reconsider its ban on headscarves, and permit Muslim women to play while wearing a headscarf. Doing so will further FIBA’s mission and values of progress and openness, it will enable players additional and more effective means to hold back sweat and hair, it will not add any risk to player safety but arguably increases player safety, and it will align FIBA with well-established precedent from other international athletic organizations and the US military, each of whom have permitted headscarves. Notably, none of the aforementioned reasons address freedom of religion issues. As a matter of religious expression alone, Ms. Abdul-Qaadir should not be discriminated against. She should not have to choose between her faith and her lifelong passion and dream to play basketball at the professional level. FIBA’s values of openness and progress should embrace the requests from Ms. Abdul-Qaadir, and female athletes in Asia and the Middle East and permit the headscarf. And while Ms. Abdul-Qaadir is a practicing Muslim and her faith is an inexorable part of her identity, the reasons to for FIBA to permit her to wear the headscarf each are of practical and secular benefit to FIBA. This rule change will continue to advance and elevate FIBA’s popularity and success. I look forward to your decision. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards,
Qasim Rashid, Esq.
Director of Civil Rights and Policy
KARAMAH: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights P: 630.709.8040 | E: qrashid@karamah.org | www.karamah.org

[1] FIBA Strategy available at http://www.fiba.com/strategy [2] Id. [3] In Basketball, Danger of Head Trauma available at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/in-basketball-danger-of-head-trauma/?_r=0 [4] Ibtihaj Muhammad Makes U.S. History, Wears Hijab at Fencing Competition available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2016/08/08/ibtihaj-muhammad-makes-us-history-wears-hijab-in-olympics/88399686/ [5] Hijab-wearing volleyball player a smash hit online after Rio Olympics photo available at https://www.rt.com/sport/355141-hijab-wearing-volleyball-olympics/ [6] In a Changing US Army, Turbans and Hijabs Allowed available at http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Military/2016/0415/In-a-changing-US-Army-turbans-and-hijabs-allowed [7] FIFA Lifts Ban on Head Covers available at http://www.aljazeera.com/sport/football/2014/03/fifa-allows-hijab-turban-players-20143113053667394.html

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