Hey FIBA, let Qatari women play

Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

The Qatar women's basketball team walked off the court in protest after being told they could not play while wearing hijabs.

The best argument you can make against sports boycotts is that those who show up usually make history. Not those who stay away.

Think of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Think of John Carlos and Tommie Smith's Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games or baseball's Jackie Robinson. Think of Kathrine Switzer sprinting to elude the race official who was trying to stop her from competing in the 1967 Boston Marathon or Venus Williams taking the microphone after winning the 2009 Dubai Tennis Championships and lamenting the absence of Shahar Pe'er, the Israeli woman who was banned by organizers and denied a visa to enter the Arabic country.

But sometimes refusing to play can actually be the right thing to do.

The Qatar women's basketball team should have never been put in the awful position last week of having to choose between competing without their Muslim hijabs, or head coverings, or withdrawing in protest at the ongoing Asian Games in South Korea. Everybody should have been spared the regrettable spectacle that happened Thursday when the Nepal team warmed up on the floor, officials took their places, the rosters were passed out to the media and the starting lineups were announced to the crowd -- only to have the Qatari team never show up, to the alleged surprise of Games officials.

A night earlier, the Qatari women did go to the arena but forfeited their opening game to Mongolia when officials told them they would not be allowed to wear their hijabs.

FIBA, the world governing body of basketball, should have long ago followed the lead of international soccer, boxing, weightlifting, judo and other sports and abandoned its backward rule that the hijab supposedly creates a safety hazard for players.

In many countries where Muslim athletes come from, quite the opposite is true.

Female Muslim athletes have to negotiate numerous delicate issues just to play or exercise, period. They are heckled and threatened with social or religious censure, physical harm, "corrective" rape or worse. Sometimes they are actively prevented from competing. A refusal to wear the hijab could put them in real peril back home that supersedes any supposed safety risk during competition.

The fact that the hijab is worn as a religious observance should settle this issue. The decision whether to wear the head covering should be left to the women, not sports officials.

Yet the FIBA rule persists even though the alleged safety concerns about hijabs long ago led to the design of sportswear that meets Islamic strictures and athletes' needs for more streamlined clothing and head coverings.

No wonder Qatar delegation leader Khalid al-Jabir said the basketball team felt it had no choice but to leave.

"We're not forfeiting games. We're not being allowed to play," al-Jabir said in a telephone interview from South Korea with The Associated Press. "On the one hand, everyone wants more women to participate in these games, and on the other hand, they're discouraging Muslim women who want to play in hijab."

This whipsaw effect is not new. And it's hardly the only challenge or dilemma female Muslim athletes face now that they are participating in sports in greater numbers.

Merely playing sports is a revolutionary thing to do where many Muslim athletes come from, as Shireen Ahmed, an observant Muslim female soccer player and Toronto-based writer, has movingly documented in her work for sites such as asafeworldforwomen.org and the blog Muslim Women in Sports.

Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

FIBA rules -- designed for safety -- restrict the use of headgear, hair accessories and jewelry.

Ahmed has written about Sihle Sijoki, a 19-year-old South African soccer player who was murdered in 2012. She's highlighted the stories of other female Muslim athletes who were subjected to brutal "corrective" rapes to teach them "how to be a woman," sometimes because they were not just playing sports but also were suspected of being gay.

At the 2012 London Olympics, athletes from Muslim countries -- some of whom were sending female athletes for the first time -- told their stories. They said they often have little or no place to train because there aren't facilities for women. Many come from countries where Muslim women and girls are segregated from men in many social settings and forbidden from leaving the house without a chaperone. Physical education is not offered to girls, only to boys, in schools.

Wojdan Shaherkani of ultraconservative Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive, encountered government and religious officials who tried to block her London Games participation in judo at the last minute by arguing about what type of headwear she had to wear. This after clerics publicly derided the 16-year-old as "the prostitute of the Olympics" for merely wanting to compete at all.

Tahmina Kohistani, a 100-meter sprinter from Afghanistan, told Britain's Daily Mail that she would hear shouts of "Just be in your house" and "Be behind your man" as she trained for London on a track in war-torn Kabul. Often, her coach would have to literally fight their way through crowds afterward.

"I faced a lot of challenges in my training," said Kohistani, then 23. "One day I was coming to the stadium and the taxi driver asked me where I was going. I said, 'I am training. I am going to London Olympics,' and he said, 'Get out of the cab. I don't want to take you there.'"

But Kohistani didn't shrink into the shadows or shut up. She raced in London and then used her platform to say, "I have a message for the women of Afghanistan. Come and join Tahmina because I need your support.

"We should have more athletes in the next Olympics," she added. "I'm going to do my best to be in Brazil. I am going to give reason for athletes to follow my way."

Kohistani already has.

Last week, the Qatar women's basketball team did the same.

The FIBA rule they paid a high price to protest will fall.

It's not a matter of if. Just when.

It's the right thing to do.

Muslim women have enough impediments to competing. FIBA needs to stop throwing an unnecessary roadblock in their way.

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