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one basket at a time

How the Hijabi Ballers are empowering Muslim female athletes

By Stephanie Davoli

Growing up in India, Amreen Kadwa’s life was filled with sports. She would constantly play around in her backyard with her sisters and cousins, yet she always hoped to do something bigger and better. When she moved to Toronto at the age of 10, she had her first experience of being part of a sports team when she joined her school’s soccer team. Although she was benched most of the time, Kadwa would make her mother come to every game for the chance to watch her play. Never having any opportunity to play an organized sport before this, fifth-grader Kadwa felt an immense sense of accomplishment and pride — a feeling that she would continue to chase for the rest of her life.

While Kadwa was always involved with sports in some capacity, she never felt that she was part of a community that she truly belonged to. So when her high school started a rugby team, she jumped at the opportunity to join.

Kadwa fell in love with the sport. After playing for three consecutive years, she won the title of MVP. The sense of belonging and the community she found within rugby followed her after graduation and she went on to play for the Yeoman Lions RFC in Toronto. It was during that time when Kadwa realized she stuck out amongst her teammates — she was the only hijab-wearing Muslim woman on the team. But the realization that her hijab caused her to stick out amongst her peers only fueled her passion to play.

After playing rugby for a total of seven years, Kadwa’s world suddenly changed when she broke her leg. The devastation of knowing that she would never be able to play her sport again was heartbreaking and she felt her athletic identity was stripped from her. The thought of leaving behind a community that had been so welcoming to her — where she had made friends and grown both as an athlete and a person — was almost too much to bear.

Not one to give up easily and definitely not feeling ready to leave the sports world behind, Kadwa began writing blog posts about what it means to be a hijabi athlete in a world where her identity is often ignored and frowned upon.

Soon, her blog posts attracted enough attention that another community began to form: a group of mainly Muslim and female athletes like herself, who are now known as the Hijabi Ballers.

“It came down to, ‘What can I do to still feel like a part of the sports scene and how can I still give back to sports?’’’ says Kadwa, the founder and executive director of the non-profit organization.

“It was obvious that there was this new-found need for a physical space for Muslim females to get together and play sports and to just be recognized and seen.”

The Hijabi Ballers are now a renowned GTA-based organization known for their support and encouragement of Muslim women in sports. Since its formation in 2017, the organization has hosted many large-scale sports festivals, countless other in-person and virtual events and has cultivated a partnership with Nike and the Toronto Raptors.

According to Kadwa, the Hijabi Ballers’ first sports festival in July of 2017 was a huge success and encouraged her to continue planning more events. Over 70 women registered to play in the multi-sport tournament, with the majority of them being Muslim. Many also participated in other athletic activities, such as drop-in cricket and soccer games, yoga sessions and a variety of fitness classes. All of these activities took place in an environment that cultivated and celebrated the athleticism of young Muslim women where sisters, mothers and friends cheered and played alongside each other for hours.

Kadwa credits the success of the first festival for the growth of the Hijabi Ballers. “There was definitely enough demand and support from volunteers and other businesses that showed that this could be sustainable and grow into something a lot bigger,” Kadwa says.

There are many barriers for Muslim women who play sports. For example, restrictive dress codes often interfere with wearing a hijab and make it difficult for women to dress modestly. Additionally, some coaches don’t know how to address the unique needs of Muslim women who wear hijabs, so participation becomes difficult and sometimes even impossible. Having gone through this herself, Kadwa sought to address these issues in order for other women to feel recognized and seen. Since then, the Hijabi Ballers have become a resource for many Muslim women athletes in the GTA.

For Hodan Hussien, the head coach of the Hijabi Ballers’ Sunday Basketball Program, the organization was a community where she saw herself represented right away, making it a dream collaboration for her. Hussien has played basketball and been an avid swimmer since she was four years old. But when she started wearing the hijab at 17, she began to encounter challenges that she had never faced before, from searching for facilities that hosted women-only programs to figuring out what to wear when playing sports. Hussien says she never had these issues until she started wearing a hijab.

As the Hijabi Ballers continued to grow, they began to host more events where Muslim women could find a space for their athleticism to be seen, appreciated and encouraged.

“It’s really incredible to see how many Muslim female athletes there are in all kinds of sports,” says Habibah Haque, a volunteer with the Hijabi Ballers and a Muslim female tennis player. “The sense of belonging for me also comes from seeing Muslim females find their own path in sports where they might be the only one or one of few.” According to Kadwa, there are currently about 40 volunteers helping run her organization and that number only continues to grow. Most of the volunteers are young Muslim female athletes.

According to Kadwa, videographer Zach Derhodge noticed the empowering work that the Hijabi Ballers were doing when he approached them in 2019 to produce a video showcasing Muslim female athletes from Toronto. Not only was the video successful in highlighting the importance of the Hijabi Ballers, but it quickly drew the attention of Nike Canada. Additionally, the Hijabi Ballers were featured in a Toronto Star article around the same time in the spring of 2019, which Kadwa credits for drawing more attention to the organization. It was around this time that the Hijabi Ballers became the inspiration for the Toronto Raptor’s Nike Pro Hijab — a sports hijab that was the first of its kind and a partnership that was meaningful to the organization.

“That was a big moment for us,” Kadwa says. “It kind of put us on this global scale because legitimate organizations like the NBA and other sports teams would look up to us, or the Raptors, and see this as something that they should also do in terms of recognizing and respecting the diversity of their fanbases.”

While the Hijabi Ballers have continuously grown and expanded as an organization since its formation, COVID-19 has unfortunately caused the group to suspend all of their in-person events and activities. The organization’s Sunday Basketball Program, a weekly drop-in affair where young women would come together on a Sunday afternoon to play basketball at a gym inside a local Scarbrough mosque, was one of the hardest activities to see be put on hold for Kadwa. “We had a lot of athletes missing that sense of sisterhood and community that they would normally find with Sunday Basketball,” Kadwa says.

Hussien’s favourite memories from the Sunday Basketball Program come from the moments after the basketball games ended. As the girls would wind down after playing a series of lovingly competitive games, they would gather together in a halaqa (meaning a “circle of learning” in Arabic) where they would sit in a circle on the gym floor and simply talk to each other. According to Hussien, there would usually be an Islamic lesson or topic integrated into the conversation and, afterwards, the girls would share knowledge and information together in an “open, heart-to-heart talk where everyone could contribute whatever they wanted.” These conversations, paired with the enjoyment of some post-workout snacks and drinks, were the “perfect cooldown” to Hussien.

Despite the inability to host any in-person events due to the pandemic, the Hijabi Ballers recently collaborated with Ryerson University’s Faculty of Communication and Design’s Global Experiential Sport Lab (GXSLab) to create a virtual community conference titled, “Integrate. Advocate. Mobilize.” This virtual conference focused on the inclusion and recognization of Muslim women in sports. The collaboration was originally scheduled to be an in-person conference held at Ryerson University in April 2020, but it was restructured due to the pandemic.

The collaboration consisted of a month-long community conference from September to October of 2020 that featured live webinars and a variety of other virtual panels and events. Every Tuesday there was a “Toolkit Tuesdays” social media campaign where audiences would learn how to include and welcome Muslim female athletes into sporting communities. One of these presentations focused on acknowledging how to accommodate and respect those who choose to wear a hijab and modest clothing in an athletic environment. Other nights, they would feature a keynote speaker who would share their experiences of being marginalized in the sports community, including Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic bronze medalist and the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics for the U.S. while wearing a hijab.

“I’m really proud of the ways that we were able to make the conference community-involved and interactive in the virtual world,” Haque says.

The collaboration ended with Laurel Walzak, the GXSLab director, and her research students receiving a grant to conduct a study on how Muslim women are consuming, engaging with and being represented in sports. The study, which is set to be published in spring 2021, includes research from a survey done in association with the Hijabi Ballers that recruited almost 100 Muslim female athlete participants.

“We wanted to make sure that we heard more stories of each participant to help people better understand how Muslim culture and religion intersect with the Canadian sports world,” Walzak says. “If we can use this to have an impact in the industry while running these conferences, that, to us, is progression.”

Immediately after the conference ended, the Hijabi Ballers launched their Black Muslim Female Athletes Community Fundraiser. This fundraiser was created out of the recognition that financial inaccessibility can stand in the way of many Black Muslim girl’s sports journeys and it sought to help address this issue by “levelling the playing field.” The funds collected went to Black Muslim female athletes through grants, sports equipment, memberships and whatever else they needed to make playing sports more financially viable.

While the fundraiser has since ended, the Hijabi Ballers are maintaining their commitment to aiding Black Muslim women in sports by continuing to grow their Black Muslim Female Athletes Fund in new ways. They’re also looking to the future by promoting their “Get Certified” program which focuses on certifying Muslim female athletes as coaches and referees, while offering them mentorship opportunities with local organizations and Islamic schools. These programs, in addition to a bit of internal restructuring and organization, are some ways that the Hijabi Ballers plan to stay active until everything reopens.

“We can’t wait until we can get everyone back together to play in person again,” Kadwa says. “But for now, we’re hoping to use this time to grow and to help us meet our short-term goals in the next three to five years.”

Until then, Kadwa is left remembering her early days of being a benchwarmer on her fifth grade soccer team, not knowing then that by the age of 25 she would create an organization that helps Muslim girls like herself find a place in sports. The Hijabi Ballers have provided a sense of belonging and joy to hundreds of women in just it’s short four years of existence. Through her years of hard work and dedication, Kadwa shows that it is truly amazing what passion, some ambition and a broken leg can accomplish.

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