Hijab-Wearing Hoopster Teaches Game to Youths

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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)


Qisi lives, works and prays in Memphis, which is good because she eats and sleeps basketball.

Basketball is to Qisi what basketball is to Memphis: Not quite a religion but certainly a lifetime devotion.

"I think I was playing basketball in my mother's womb," she said. "When I play basketball, I worry about nothing."

The problem is getting to play.

Qisi still has a wicked crossover dribble that made her the leading female scorer in Massachusetts high school history.

She still has lightning-quick hands that helped her play 124 games of NCAA-Division I basketball, most of them as a record-setting point guard for University of Memphis Lady Tigers.

She still has the poise and leadership that helped her -- as a graduate student -- lead Indiana State to a conference title in 2014.

She's only 26 years old, still young enough and good enough to play professionally, if not here in the U.S. then in Europe.

If only she were allowed to play.

FIBA, basketball's governing body, bans head coverings, including turbans, yarmulkes and hijabs "for safety reasons."

From ABHeadscarf Concerns Force Basketball Player to Miss First Half

Bilqis "Qisi" Abdul-Qaadir, born and raised in Massachusetts, is a Muslim American. She believes her faith asks her to dress modestly.

She chooses to honor her faith by covering her head with a scarf, or hijab. She also keeps her arms and legs covered in public.

That wasn't a problem in high school or college. In fact, as a Memphis Tiger, Qisi became the NCAA's first Division I player to wear a hijab.

President Barack Obama invited her to the White House her freshman year.

"As an honors student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis," Obama said when he introduced her, "Bilqis is an inspiration

She tries to be.

Banned from playing professional basketball because of her faith, Qisi has turned her attention to teaching Muslim girls how to play.

After Qisi earned her master's degree, she became athletic director at Pleasant View School, a pre-K-12 Muslim school in Bartlett.

The PVS Panthers have three teams in the East Shelby Church Recreation Association, which has more than 3,000 players under-8 through under-18.

The church league's mission is to "encourage fellowship that honors Jesus Christ," but it's multi-denominational and multifaith league.

Its 330 teams include those from Germantown Parks and Rec as well as Margolin Hebrew Academy.

Some boys wear yarmulkes. Some girls wear skirts and leggings and hijabs.

"We are open to anyone and everyone," said league president Scott McClain, a coach at Hope Presbyterian Church. "We are trying to build community through basketball."

Qisi loves the league.

"They are a great organization, very welcoming and supportive," she said.

The league strives to honor the faith or non-faith of all its members, McClain said, even in its pre-game prayers.

Not everyone gets the message.

Before a game Jan. 21, a referee admonished Qisi and her girls in the middle of the court for not believing "in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior."

"He used the word 'sin,'" Qisi said. "These girls are 9 and 10 years old. Why is he talking about sin? What does this have to do with basketball."

As the referee kept talking, Qisi's eyes welled with tears. She told her team to go to the bench. Then she asked them if they wanted to play.

They did. They won the game.

"What the referee did was so disrespectful, but Qisi handled it with dignity and grace," said Dr. Bashar Shala, a physician whose 10-year-old daughter is on the team.

Qisi expressed her frustrations live on Facebook last Sunday.

"I was hurt. I'm still hurt," she said. "This man was so angry talking to these little babies. They're babies."

Her under-12 team played again Saturday. This time, the pre-game prayer went better than the game. They lost but they never gave up.

Meanwhile, Qisi isn't giving up on FIBA, which is expected to make a statement on its hijab ban soon.

Qisi's online petition calling on FIBA to allow women to wear hijabs has gained nearly 132,000 signatures.

Her efforts are the subjects of two films. One is a documentary called "Life Without Basketball." A trailer for other, a short film called "FIBA Allow Hijabs," was released last week.

Thursday, NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted her about it:

Keep doing your thing @Queen_Of_Sheeba #StriveForGreatness

She will. She loves basketball. She loves her girls even more.


David Waters

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January 29, 2017


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