Simran Jeet Singh is the Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a PhD candidate in the Department of Religion at Columbia University.
Playing competitive sports is hard enough without having to worry about what to wear on the court.
But when stringent uniform regulations conflict with religious beliefs, it creates a frustrating stalemate that no amount of skill or practice alone can resolve. This is the dilemma that thousands of athletes around the world have faced, including American athletes Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and Darsh Preet Singh.
Abdul-Qaadir made history in 2010 as the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) first female Muslim basketball player who wears an Islamic headscarf. Singh made history in 2004 as the NCAA’s first Sikh basketball player to wear a turban in collegiate competitions. His jersey now hangs in the Smithsonian Museum.
But neither of these players had the option to continue their basketball careers beyond college. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the overarching association of national organizations governing international basketball competition, has a policy banning any headgear–including religious garments–wider than 5 centimeters. This provision automatically disqualifies Sikh and Muslim athletes who respectively wear turbans and hijabs as mandated by their faith. The federation says in its official rulebook that such items and accessories cannot be worn on the court because “they may cause injury to other players.”
Both Abdul-Qaadir and Singh have demonstrated the talent and drive to compete professionally. But the ban on headgear prevents them and others from participating in any FIBA-endorsed competition–including international tournaments such as the Olympics and World Cup and most professional leagues. The professional world of basketball is effectively closed to them.
“Playing professionally has been my goal for as long as I can remember,” Abdul-Qaadir said in her petition on Change.org urging FIBA to change its regulations. Fellow petitioner Indira Kaljo, who played professionally for two years in Europe before she decided to start wearing hijab, told Bustle in August: “We are trying to show the world that regardless of our ethnicity or religious background, we are women that want to be able to make a decision for ourselves.”
This ban does not exist in all professional sports. Another American Muslim athlete, Team USA Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history in August by becoming the first U.S. Olympian to compete wearing hijab. Interestingly, her journey into fencing was a direct result of her struggle to find a sport that would not force her to compromise her mandatory dress code. (Besides basketball, boxing and judo also have similar clothing restrictions). Muhammad has said that she chose fencing because she wouldn’t have to alter her fencing gear to meet religious requirements. Wearing a hijab while competing clearly did not hinder her ability to compete in Rio, as proved by her bronze medal.
No one should ever have to weigh uniform requirements over personal preference and talent when making the decision of which sport to play, especially not when they have dedicated their life to excelling at it—defeating competitors, smashing records and making history. It adds insult to injury to be on track to fulfill your dream to compete professionally at the highest level, only to be told you’re out unless you trade off your faith.
In 2014, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Council on American-Islamic Relations both pressured FIBA on behalf of Abdul-Qaadir and other female Muslim athletes to modify their policy and allow them to compete. That same year, at the request of the Sikh Coalition, members of Congress wrote a letter to FIBA’s president explaining that turbans are an important article of faith for Sikh players, and urged the federation to end its discriminatory policy.
These collective efforts persuaded FIBA to approve a two-year provisional period permitting athletes to wear religious headgear while it weighed whether to revise its policies. This temporary allowance has only been applicable to competitions at the national level, and only after the national federation submits a formal, written request to FIBA. FIBA is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks on whether it will permanently lift its ban to allow religious head-coverings at national, international and Olympic competitions.
FIBA, the world is looking at you. It is unethical and unconscionable to force any qualified, dedicated athlete to choose between their faith and their passion and gift for the sport. Your stated mission is to “develop and promote the game of basketball, uniting the wider basketball community.” The impending decision is an opportunity to demonstrate that this mission is substantive and relevant. It is your chance to foster goodwill, embrace inclusion, promote unity and exemplify true leadership.
We urge FIBA to do the right thing: To block bigotry, defend religious freedom and lift the ban on religious headgear. Pulling these principled, gifted basketball stars from the bench into the game is guaranteed to be a slam dunk move.
Dr. Zainab Chaudry is a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, board member of Interfaith Action for Human Rights and the first known Muslim appointed to the Maryland State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University, Senior Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a Truman National Security Fellow for the Truman National Security Project.