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Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is all smiles as she prepares to deliver the 2017 International Week keynote address April 12 in the Baker University Center Theatre.

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir is all smiles as she prepares to deliver the 2017 International Week keynote address April 12 in the Baker University Center Theatre.

Photographer: Jiahui Wang

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir poses for a photo with a T-shirt advertising her organization, “Muslim Girls Hoop Too.”

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir poses for a photo with a T-shirt advertising her organization, “Muslim Girls Hoop Too.”

Photographer: Jiahui Wang

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Former NCAA Division I athlete shares story of overcoming adversity at International Week keynote


International Week is all about celebrating diversity, inclusion and the multicultural backgrounds of Ohio University’s international students, faculty and staff. One of the highlights of the week is the keynote address, delivered this year by Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir who, in a presentation titled “Life Without Basketball,” brought to OHIO a message of strength through adversity.

Abdul-Qaadir is a former basketball player for the University of Memphis and Indiana State University. She began playing basketball at age 4, and it quickly became her passion.

“Basketball was my life. It was such a big part of my identity,” Abdul-Qaadir told the crowd gathered in the Baker University Center Theatre the evening of April 12. “When I was on the court, nothing else mattered. I was able to relax and not think about anything else.”

Abdul-Qaadir was an exceptional athlete and student – and the first NCAA Division I athlete to play while wearing a hijab, a veil traditionally worn by Muslim women.

“I would get a lot of stares when we travelled for games, and people sometimes yelled things at me when I was at the foul line,” she said. “It took so much composure and patience to block that out and focus on my game.”

After a successful career at the University of Memphis and Indiana State University, Abdul-Qaadir set her sights on becoming a professional basketball player. Her plan was to play abroad, so she hired an agent and created an online basketball profile.

But Abdul-Qaadir’s dream of playing professionally ended before it began. FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, determines the rules that govern international basketball and has banned any type of headgear for players, citing safety concerns.

That rule left Abdul-Qaadir faced with a choice – her faith or her professional dream.

“It was really difficult because the same hijab and basketball that brought me so many opportunities were now taking away my future,” said Abdul-Qaadir. “I had planned on playing basketball and now my future was just a question mark.”

After she was barred from participating in international basketball, Abdul-Qaadir had to readjust her life and form a new plan. She decided to use her difficult circumstance to try and make a positive change. Today, she travels and speaks about her past to spread awareness about FIBA’s rule and how it changed her life – all through an organization she founded called “Muslim Girls Hoop Too.”

“I think what’s really important is voices. If you can share your story and someone learns from it and tells others, that’s how things change,” she said. “This has always been bigger than basketball. It’s about human rights.”

Abdul-Qaadir’s story has touched many, and her message and perseverance earned her an invitation from President Barack Obama to attend a Ramadan dinner at the White House in 2009. In addressing those at the dinner, President Obama spoke about Abdul-Qaadir, saying, “As an honor student, as an athlete on her way to Memphis, Bilqis is an inspiration not simply to Muslim girls – she’s an inspiration to all of us.”

Representatives from FIBA will be meeting in May, and Abdul-Qaadir hopes they will consider amending the rule so that future athletes will not be banned from pursuing their dreams like she was. The meeting comes on the heels of an announcement from Nike last month that the company plans to begin selling a performance hijab for Muslim women athletes. 

While Abdul-Qaadir misses basketball, she is thankful to have found a new passion in motivational speaking and coaching. More importantly, she wants to be a voice for Muslim girls who want to play sports.

“We make America. Diversity makes America,” Abdul-Qaadir said during her keynote address. “So take pride in who you are. Don’t change, and don’t be put in a box.”

“I really enjoyed hearing Bilqis’ story,” Mikala Perry, a junior studying nursing, said after the event. “I had never heard of the ban on hijabs, so it was interesting to learn about it.”

For more information on Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and her story, visit her website Muslim Girls Hoop Too, follow her on Twitter at @Queen_Of_Sheeba, or watch the documentary about her experience titled “Life Without Basketball.”