DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Basketball enthusiasts around the world said a decision to allow players to wear religious headgear in competition will encourage more people to play the sport because it gives participants the right to practice their faith and focus on playing ball.
The unanimous vote Thursday by international basketball’s governing body, known as FIBA, allows female players to wear hijabs and male players to wear turbans and yarmulkes following a ban initially imposed for safety reasons 20 years ago. In 2014, FIBA allowed a two-year testing phase for head coverings.
“I think we came out in a good place, at the right place,” said USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley, who is on the FIBA executive committee. “I think it’s a good step for FIBA to put this issue kind of behind it and go from there.”
Iranian national basketball team player Shadi Abdolvand said basketball will change in Iran because younger players will be encouraged to “pursue their goals.”
“The end of this month there is a Western Asian tournament and we were looking forward to hearing the news that we can take part,” she said. The team’s dream is to compete with the world’s top players and “see if we can get much better than what we are now,” she said.
The effort to push the governing body to change its regulations dates back several years. Other sports, including soccer, had already relaxed such regulations.
Athlete Ally – an organization dedicated to end homophobia and transphobia in sports and to educate athletic communities to stand up against discrimination – joined with Shirzanan, a media and advocacy organization for Muslim female athletes, to send a letter to FIBA on Jan. 25, urging leaders to “immediately lift the ban on religious headgear.” The letter was signed by many WNBA players, including rookie of the year Breanna Stewart.
That letter came a few years after American-Muslim basketball player Indira Kajlo helped campaign to have FIBA loosen its restrictions on headgear. She started an online petition that drew around 70,000 signatures. She also worked with members of the Sikh community in India, as well as hearing from women in Turkey, Sweden and the UK who expressed their support.
Kajlo, who has played professionally in Ireland and Bosnia, said she had to choose between her faith and the sport she loved when she decided to wear the hijab a few years ago.
“It’s a horrible feeling. There’s nothing in the world like having to choose between your faith and something you love,” she said.
FIBA’s decision comes a month after Nike released its first sport hijab for Muslim women.
One of the designers of the Nike Pro Hijab, Emirati weightlifter Amna al-Haddad, said in an online post after its release in March that without pressure from Muslim female athletes to train, exercise and compete in hijab, Nike would not have created the sport hijab. She said allowing more women to compete in modest attire “will encourage a new generation of athletes to pursue sports professionally.”
Muslim female athletes have long fought to have the right to play the sport of their choice in modest attire and in hijab.
For the 2012 London Olympics, the International Olympic Committee and the International Judo Federation agreed to allow Saudi judo player Wojdan Shahrkhani to compete while wearing a headscarf. She made history that year as one of the first Saudi women to ever compete in the Olympics.
American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first athlete to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the Rio Olympics, earning a bronze medal as part of Team USA.
“When other Arab women see a Muslim playing professionally, that encourages them to play as well. There’s no reason for them not to play now, nothing is stopping them,” said Salim al-Mutawa’a, the head of the United Arab Emirates’ Basketball Association.
Still, women’s access to sports remains limited in some Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, where physical education is still not on the curriculum in public schools for girls. Ultraconservatives have pushed back against efforts by women to play sports, saying it blurs gender lines and is immodest.
Lina Almaeena helped found one of Saudi Arabia’s first private sports clubs for women, called Jeddah United. The women’s basketball team has participated in tournaments abroad. She says FIBA’s decision reconfirms that the Olympic charter “is real and does enable everyone to participate regardless of their background.”
“For the women who stopped playing sports because of the ban, it is a huge deal,” Almaeena said.