Asma Elbadawi changing rules for Muslim women to wear hijab in sport

From First Up, 5:34 am on 26 July 2022

Some Muslim women who want to compete in certain sports can’t because of bans overseas on the headscarf.

But a group of 11 women managed to push the International Basketball Federation to reverse its ban on the hijab in 2019.

Among them was athlete, spoken word poet and artist Asma Elbadawi. She has recently been on a speaking tour around New Zealand about overcoming life’s mysteries and challenges. 

Asma Elbadawi in her Adidas brand campaign.

Asma Elbadawi in her Adidas brand campaign. Photo: Supplied / Adidas

The Sudanese-British coach tells First Up she originally played netball at an all-girls Islamic school but wasn’t sure if she could pursue it after leaving school.

“I felt like my parents wouldn’t really appreciate me playing sports anymore because I was in a controlled environment you could say, where other teachers knew the rules, we could maintain our modesty, we could be in an all-female environment,” Elbadawi says.

But being left without sports for two years, she says she felt down and as if something was missing.

“So eventually I went back to playing sports and the sport that I felt was the closest to netball was basketball, so I joined the team and within a year I basically decided I wanted to keep doing this.

“I had a big conversation with my dad and he just encouraged me so much to continue playing, to get my coaching qualifications and do something more with sport.”

Muslim women are just as capable and strong as any other to compete in sports, but hijab bans have eliminated visibility at elite levels, she says.

“When you do that, you basically deny a whole generation from dreaming and from seeing other women who look like them or worse; I think it creates this idea that the faith has something against Muslim women playing sport.

“And the community isn’t that helpful at times because of the cultural ideas around females and sports and there’s a lot of conversations about is it modest or is it even allowed?

“So, the more women that we have on the screen and the more women that are competing, the more we can break those kinds of stereotypes and barriers.”

Elbadawi’s involvement in a campaign to challenge the International Basketball Federation’s hijab ban came about after a former professional player told her she was forced to quit after deciding to wear the headscarf.

“We put a petition up and got over 130,000 signatures and to me that showed that it wasn’t just a thing that we’d done, you know, it wasn’t just me and the group of the girls; the wider community helped make this petition and what we were asking for reach the necessary people and for our voices to be heard.

“So, it’s less about the hijab, it’s about women being able to wear as little and as much as they want.”

Having more uniform options keeps women and young girls in sports, regardless of faith, she says.

“It’s not a Muslim thing to be modest and to cover up, it’s actually just a natural thing to sometimes want to cover up more and sometimes maybe show a bit more.”

The Adidas brand ambassador says she tries not look too much at the comments under her commercial because “sometimes they’re positive and sometimes they’re really not that positive”.

“I think it shows a lack of understanding of Muslim faith and I think it reduces Muslim women to just their hijab whereas I feel like we’re so much more than that.

“I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done to normalise the hijab. In countries like France, for example, they had to do a lot of campaigning just to keep the hijab in sports.”

Despite her successes, she wants to let people know she’s not perfect either.

“I have my down days and I have my great days and I think it’s really, really important for me to remind people of that because we have a perception that if you’ve succeeded in lots of fields then you must have no issues in life or no challenges.”

And her message to aspiring people is to never limit yourself.

“If you’re passionate about sport, pursue that and try to get to those elite levels. If you’re passionate about art, then follow those dreams. We live in a time where nothing is impossible.”