Could the repeal of a US basketball hijab ban provide a playbook for other legal victories?

When Europe’s highest court recently delivered a long-awaited ruling that buttressed the right of local employers to forbid women from wearing a headscarf at work, many viewed it as the decisive answer to a murky question that has divided local employers, workers and lawmakers for years. Yes, the court said, private employers are allowed under EU law to ban the Muslim veil as part of an overall company policy against visible religious symbols.

The judgement was met with widespread disappointment and disbelief by Muslim women, human rights advocates and anti-racism organisations. “This is a really worrying trend. Things are not going in the right direction and actually, with this ruling, more companies may allow themselves to discriminate against Muslims,” says Julie Pascoët, from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR).

Across the Atlantic, a similar battle was also settled recently, albeit with a starkly different outcome. This woman’s place of work was a 28 by 15 metres playing court and her employer, the International Federation of Basketball (FIBA). The years-long fight that preceded that decision, experts say, offers a potential playbook, and hope, to Muslim women and activists in Europe determined to challenge bans on headscarves in the workplace.

A star player at the University of Memphis, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir held the record for highest scorer in high school basketball in the state of Massachusetts and planned to compete overseas professionally in 2014. That dream came crashing down when she learned that the international basketball federation had a safety rule in place that prevented players from wearing any equipment that could cause them or fellow players injury – apparently this included her headscarf.

Feeling torn between her faith and her career, Abdul-Qaadir considered taking off her scarf, which she had worn throughout all nine years that she played high school and college basketball. “But then, I was thinking: ‘Why am I going to change for these people who don’t want me there in the first place?’” she recently told Equal Times. “Who I am, my belief, what I’ve been raised on and what I love is my faith, and who I am as a Muslim woman. I’m not going to let that go for a game of basketball.”

For Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, which brings together 85,000 players across professional sport and is a sector of the international trade union federation UNI Global Union, she shouldn’t have had to.

“This is a fundamental matter of human rights,” he says. “The very notion that someone would only be allowed to attend an office, to work as a lawyer provided she remove her hijab, would be something that would be unacceptable under international human rights law, and in the laws of many countries.”

With help from advocacy groups, human rights organisations and the World Players Association, Abdul-Qaadir succeeded in getting the Switzerland-based FIBA to overturn its ban in May after a sustained three-year effort waged on multiple fronts.

Rather than going the legal route, several advocacy groups mounted a broad public campaign around Abdul-Qaadir. An online petition to overturn the ban on head coverings garnered more than 130,000 signatures, and more than 30 star athletes signed an open letter, including the former world tennis champion Billie Jean King and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to represent the US while wearing a hijab at the Olympics.

In addition, an op-ed Abdul-Qaadir wrote in conjunction with Shirzanan, a media and advocacy initiative to empower Muslim women through sports, was published on a Time Magazine-affiliated blog. Even LeBron James, arguably the world’s most famous basketball player tweeted his support.

“A human rights matter”

FIBA isn’t the first sports federation to relax its clothing rules. The International Judo Federation and the US weightlifting federation have made similar moves, and FIFA, football’s international governing body, banned a similar rule in 2014 after conducting extensive research that found that hijabs did not present any safety concerns.

Mara Gubuan, a co-founder of the New York-based Shirzanan, says their action plan for Abdul-Qaadir quickly took form after the group discovered that a two-year provisional ban on headscarves FIBA had put in place would be up for review around the time of the 2016 Rio Olympics. “We realised we needed to make certain this was visible in the media in order to ensure the best possible chance for it to be overturned,” she says. “We understand that no change is really possible in these institutional laws of sports unless there’s really external pressure that finally the internal bodies respond to.”

Also, there wasn’t really any other choice. International sporting associations are free to set their own regulations, unlike national sporting groups such as the NBA, which are bound by national law, Schwab explains. For him, the long, three-year road to FIBA’s recent move highlights the need for the introduction of a human rights framework in international sports.

“FIBA did not look at it as a human rights matter; they did not have that within their thinking, within their frame of reference,” he explains. “Had they had the internal capacity to undertake a human rights due diligence, it would have quickly emerged that the rule had a discriminatory effect.”

“One of the huge flaws in this whole process is that there is no protocol in place,” adds Gubuan. “When Bilqis discovered this ban three years ago, she had no idea how to actually address it other than to email FIBA and ask: ‘What is this and is there a way around it?’”

Hijab bans like the one FIBA introduced can, moreover, leave entire female teams stranded, Solmaz Sharif, another Shirzanan co-founder, adds. Because the hijab is mandatory for female athletes in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran, restrictive rules by world governing bodies essentially make it impossible for women to represent their countries at an international level. “That is a complete deleting or complete silence of a community,” she says, pointing out that Shirzanan isn’t for or against the hijab. “We are advocating on choice, the choices that female athletes should have and should be able to make.”

“Oh wow, why is her scarf an issue?”

Abdul-Qaadir today works as an athletic director at a private school in Tennessee and has no plans of returning to professional basketball. But she hopes that the gains she helped make on the basketball court will echo beyond the sport and all the way into the offices of Europe.

“Now that people might see Muslim athletes playing at these high levels, maybe they will be like: ‘Oh wow, why is her scarf an issue and she works in my office?’” she says, also pointing to Muhammad’s 2016 Olympic success.

Although their cases revolved around the same central issue – a worker’s right to wear a veil on the job – the differences between the two women behind the recent European Court of Justice ruling (both of which were dismissed by Belgian and French private employers when they refused to remove their headscarf) and Abdul-Qaadir are great. FIBA objected to the headscarf on safety and health grounds, while the two women’s employers, the global security company G4S and Micropole, an information technology consultancy, objected on neutrality grounds.

Still, human rights and anti-racism organisations in Europe have taken heed of the recent developments in the US. “I think one of the lessons is of course the fact that they managed to organise and get mobilised in order to advocate for their rights and this is something that is not always being done in Europe,” Pascoët says. “In Muslim communities, we still often lack the power of mobilisation, of organisation.”

Although ENAR has documented a rise in islamophobic incidents in Europe in recent years, and warned in a recent report that Muslim women in particular frequently face discrimination in the workplace (one Belgian study for instance found 44 per cent of local employers admitting that an applicant’s headscarf could negatively influence their selection), such developments haven’t been followed by concerted political action.

“I think there is not this culture of mobilisation and organising in Europe as there is in the US,” Pascoët says. “There is really this difficulty to get people mobilised on societal issues sometimes, specifically when it comes to racism.”

Several advocacy groups and networks – from the Sweden-based Muslim Human Rights Committee to Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights – published a joint statement after the judgement in which they warned that the ruling would exacerbate the discrimination Muslim women already face in the workplace. The European Forum of Muslim Women notably said it would continue fighting for equal rights and freedom of religion in Europe.

For a mobilisation campaign such as that built around Abdul-Qaadir to work, you also need someone like, well, Abdul-Qaadir. “The whole structure of the Shirzanan organisation, it’s basically that we find people like Bilqis, who became an accidental advocate because she was standing up for herself,” Gubuan explains. “Our advocacy work is really to raise the voices, raise the media visibility, strengthen the skills and the confidence of role models like Bilqis to then advocate and go up against these institutional and cultural barriers.”

Although their names were cited in court, the two European employees have tried very much to remain out of the public eye. Abdul-Qaadir, in contrast, has given countless interviews and speeches, played ball with former US president Barack Obama and even agreed to let two independent filmmakers follow her for a documentary, Life Without Basketball, set for release this autumn.

Still, Abdul-Qaadir says she didn’t feel like she had much of a choice, considering she was the only veiled woman in the NCAA Division-I, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics in the US, at the time. “I was the only one who was trying to pursue a professional career overseas and I had to think outside of myself.” Abdul-Qaadir admits it was strange “to go from just wanting to be a basketball player and shoot hoops, to standing for something or becoming a public figure, and trying to go against such a powerhouse like FIBA,” but “I had to think: ‘Who else was going to do it?’”

Noting that there is perhaps a greater tolerance for visible religious symbols in the US than in Europe, Abdul-Qaadir says that misperceptions about Muslim women are abound on both sides of the Atlantic all the same. “The fact that we cover our bodies or we choose to wear our head wrap or our hijabs, it doesn’t make us any different,” she says. “I just hate that we get looked at as alien in this world. We belong in all spaces, whether it’s in a doctor’s office, a basketball court, a soccer field, in a courtroom – those are our places too.”