International basketball celebrates vote to allow headgear

Even as basketball’s popularity soared around the world, not everyone believed they could get in the game.

A ban on headgear by the sport’s governing body meant choosing between play and prayer, a rule that wasn’t about religion but felt as if it were to some groups.

That ended Thursday with a unanimous vote to allow headgear, a change that was celebrated by Muslim women, Indian men and others who felt excluded.

”My reaction is it’s a victory for inclusion in international basketball,” said Big East Commissioner Val Ackermann, a longtime FIBA board member. ”I think this will especially work to benefit Muslim female athletes. It’s a very positive and very important development.”

And one that finally caught basketball up with soccer and other sports that had already relaxed their regulations on headgear. FIBA’s lasted two decades before it was finally removed after a two-year testing phase for head coverings.

”FIBA showed its commitment to inclusion by unanimously passing this rule regarding players’ headgear,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner and FIBA board member Mark Tatum. ”FIBA displayed a progressive attitude toward the situation to come up with a resolution that works for all and will continue to grow the game of basketball around the world.”

The vote at FIBA’s midterm congress in Hong Kong, attended by representatives of 139 national federations, 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.

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 rule, which goes into effect Oct. 1, requires headgear to be black, white or the same dominant color as the uniform for all players. It cannot cover any part of the face, have no opening or closing elements around the face and/or neck, and have no parts that extrude from its surface.

The effort to push the governing body to change its regulations dates back several years. 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 wasn’t thinking about that when it enacted the ban.

”I think initially people thought that this was about religion and as FIBA studied it more, they wanted to make sure it was safe,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley said. ”Now some people have scoffed (at that), how could a hijab be unsafe? It wasn’t just about that. There were some head dressings that were like scarves that were loose and hung off. It was more to it than just hijabs.”

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.

Muna Mohamed, a 22-year-old Somali-American in Minnesota, took part in a project to design culturally sensitive sportswear for East African girls, most of them Muslim, including one with a tight black headpiece. She welcomed FIBA’s decision, saying it would open doors for Muslim girls who wish to wear a headscarf while playing sports.

”It’s about time. This happened because sports should be (accessible) to all, regardless of race, gender, class or where you come from,” Mohamed said. ”It should not have taken this long for this to happen.”

Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy and Malak Harb in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Mahdi Fattahi in Tehran, Iran; Ian Deitch in Jerusalem; and Jeff Baenen in Minneapolis contributed to this report.