The Asian Games are underway in Incheon, South Korea; an event that is playing host to more than 9,500 athletes hailing from 45 countries. All of them participating under the slogan "Diversity Shines Here." However, overshadowing this message of inclusivity is the frustration and bitter disappointment of the Qatari women's basketball team. The team was forced to formally withdraw from the Games due to a dispute with organizers over the team's decision to wear their hijabs on the court.
That's right, it seems as if hijab bans remain a thorn in the side of sport regulatory bodies. In this case, Qatar's basketball squad was forced to forfeit after an official told them they were ineligible to play while wearing their hijabs, an obligatory part of their religious attire and one that is worn during any physical activity or competition.
Less than two weeks ago, the International Federation of Basketball (FIBA) announced a two year trial period for athletes who wear head coverings. Basketball players who wear a hijab, turban, or yarmulke would finally be able to participate in games and matches at a national level. On its face, the move might seem like a good step, but it was rightly critiqued by others, such as Habeeba Husain of SLAM, who described the rule as being mere "baby steps." Further, FIBA's lack of specifics and inability to elaborate on the temporary nature of the rules seems to be causing even more confusion for players who want to play professionally in international leagues, as well as competition officials who are trying to enforce the new regulations.
Worse yet, there are no specific directives on how players can proceed. Per recent amendments to article 4.2.2 of the FIBA rulebook, players who wear head coverings must apply for eligibility to any national basketball program. However, the amendment oddly excludes international competition.
"I am elated," Bosnian-American basketball player Indira Kaljo told me, "but what are the next steps? We have been tirelessly trying to contact one person … they will not give us one point of contact for clarification."
Kaljo spent the last few months lobbying FIBA tirelessly and partnered with RPS Kohli, a Sikh businessman in India, to create a Change.org petition that garnered over 70,000 signatures, which ignited the #LetSikhsPlay hashtag and re-energized the #Right2Wear campaign. Sadly, all that campaigning couldn't keep Qatar's team from being forced to forfeit and then withdraw from the Asian Games.
Anna Jihyun You, a member of the organizing committee of the Asian Games, stated that FIBA "did not have any instructions," for match officials on how the process of relaxing regulations for players wearing a head covering would apply to the Asian Games. A severe blunder since clarification is critical at this juncture and is not being provided by FIBA, the body responsible for regulations in the first place. Rendering this all the more incomprehensible is the fact that basketball is the only major sport in international competition to have such a ban. No other sport at the Asian Games has such arduous and perplexing clothing restrictions.
Compare that to FIFA, which lifted its hijab ban after much lobbying from Executive Committee member Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein. The regulatory body laid out a concrete plan through an approach that differed with that of FIBA. During a trial period that was announced by IFAB (the governing body of FIFA) in July 2012, women were allowed to wear a prototype head covering that was being tested by a medical safety team. Less than two years later, the ban was formally lifted.
Meanwhile, FIBA is providing no clear plan on this issue, but is insisting that the ban does not hold any "religious connotations." This despite its de facto ban on Muslim, Sikh, and Jewish players who wear a head covering serving as a contradiction to the values of non-religious discrimination that it claims to be upholding. As for the "safety" concerns so often bandied about in these discussions, there is no case of an injury caused to a basketball player due to their head covering on record anywhere in the world. Perhaps the obvious solution of including all athletes at every level of competition might be a more tenable way to govern the sport.
Beyond the issue of religious discrimination, there is also the potential impact of FIBA's bureaucratic inefficiency, which lies in basketball's status as a truly global phenomenon. Muslim women are no exception to this. There are countless basketball leagues and tournaments that foster Muslim players. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is such a player. The Springfield, Massachusetts native holds the state's high school scoring record—regardless of gender. She went on to play at Memphis and Indiana State while earning a master's in coaching, but is in a limbo of sorts as she remains unable to sign with a professional league due to her hijab. FIBA's regulatory issues plainly go against its goal of furthering basketball's global evolution.
This issue has not been specific to Muslim women, either. After two Sikh players were barred from playing in the Asian Championship playoffs, the Indian Basketball Federation filed an official complaint with FIBA. These situations make for a stark contrast to the NCAA, which does not have the same restrictions as FIBA and permits athletes who wear a head covering to play collegiate basketball. It is only when players want to move on to a professional level that their hoop dreams come to a halt.
In the meantime, as the world continues to pressure FIBA to come to the same obvious conclusions as FIFA, many capable and skilled players like Bilqis, Indira, and Qatar's women's team will remain on the outside looking in. Clearly, diversity is not shining, all thanks to FIBA.