“It’s hard to be a Muslim woman in America. It takes strength to walk outside and look different than anybody else.”
Many Muslim-American women can sympathize with these words, spoken by former collegiate basketball player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. Muslim-Americans have been the subjects of odd looks, aggressive stares more post-9/11. Abdul-Qaadir, though, faced a different challenge. As one of the best women’s basketball players to emerge from Massachusetts, she has had to deal with these actions while representing Muslim-American athletes to the basketball world.
Abdul-Qaadir spoke at the Rebecca Crown Center on Feb. 21, as part of the Muslim-cultural Students Association’s Discover Islam Week. She was the second speaker in the weeklong engagement with the Northwestern community, which aims to “flip the script of the Muslim narrative."
Abdul-Qaadir discussed her roots, having come from a family of eight children in Springfield, Massachusetts, the birthplace of basketball.
“Only place I felt comfortable was on the court,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “I wanted the ball, I wanted to score a basket. People stare and point, [but my] teammates reminded me to just kill ‘em, score your points and play hard.”
Abdul-Qaadir grew up playing against younger boys at her local community center to the age of 13. Then, her parents sent her to play with girls, and soon she was playing for her local AAU travel team. By her senior year of high school, she set the record for most points in Massachusetts state history, racking up an astonishing 3,070 — almost 300 more than second-place Rebecca Lobo, who went on to star in the WNBA. Abdul-Qaadir left for Memphis University, where she played the majority of her college before transferring to Indiana State University.
It was only after she decided to turn pro during her time in Europe that religion became more prominent in her life. Although she wanted to play overseas, the International Basketball Federation prevented her from doing so because she wore a hijab.
“They wanted to keep the game religiously neutral,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “Anything bigger than a headband can cause injury, [but a hijab] is safer than braids and ponytails. ... Everybody that was supporting me knew it was discrimination.”
At this point, Abdul-Qaadir began to self-reflect about Islam, basketball and her role as a possible pioneer for religious athletes around the world.
“I had to empathize and understand what they’re coming from, but it just didn't add up,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “For a long time, I was known as that Muslim girl that plays basketball. When basketball was taken away, I was just a Muslim. [With] basketball and me being Muslim, there was a little fame. People think so highly of you, but behind the scenes you're not even sure who you are. I wasn't sure if I was being Muslim the right away.”
Abdul-Qaadir’s journey of spiritual rediscovery began when had to make a choice between her passion, basketball and her religion.
“At some point in our lives you're gonna have to choose,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “For me, as simple as it sounds, basketball was my test of faith. Will you take off your hijab and get a few buckets, or will you [not play] so young girls won't have to go through what you went through? The last thing I knew to do was pray. We as Muslims pray for everything — it's our only connection to God. After that prayer, everything started to fall in place.”
With her newfound resolve, Abdul-Qaadir began campaigning for the end of the headwear removal law. She also began a nonprofit organization, Muslim Girls Hoop Too, to support an active lifestyle for Muslim girls and introduce young women to basketball.
“What I want is for Muslim women in all sports to walk into a sports arena and not be seen as abnormal,” Abdul-Qaadir said.
In October 2017, the International Basketball Federation eliminated its headwear prevention law, allowing players of all faiths to wear their respective headdress. Abdul-Qaadir, though, decided to postpone her basketball career and instead teach youth about the game.
“It's more gratifying to teach this girl who has never shot a ball in her life, and the look on her face is [huge]. It’s more gratifying than me scoring a basketball in my game,” Abdul-Qaadir said.
Recently, Abdul-Qaadir represented Somalia at the annual Arab Women’s Sports Tournament, where she averaged 30 points per game in three games. At the games, she was approached by other nations, including Jordan, that recruited her for future tournaments. For now, though, Abdul-Qaadir is focused on teaching her students to ignore hatred, and just play.
“[Muslims] can’t defend ourselves on social media all the time,” Abdul-Qaadir said. “We can't do it. Once you stop caring what other people care about you, you'll feel so free.”
McSA member and Weinberg freshman Jihad Esmail views Abdul-Qaadir as the sort of figure with the potential to transform how the world views Muslims.
“I think a lot of people take Islam as this independent thing in people’s lives,” Esmail said. “They only put [Muslims] in the mold of a Muslim. What is inspirational about her story is that she was in her mind, a basketball player, who was also a Muslim. She broke the mold of your stereotypical Muslim woman, because she also took the positivity of her faith, and put it into her passion.”
Esmail, a practicing Muslim, added that Abdul-Qaadir inspires him to break glass ceilings surrounding the success of Muslim-Americans.
“As a Muslim student that is going through a lot of the struggles that she went through in terms of pressure in college," Esmail said, "I’m able to look up to someone like her and say that she was able to do it, there's no reason I can't do it."