"Defense!" the players yell to one another as the clock winds down and the opposition bears down on their basket in the dying minutes of the championship game. "Play defense!" The event could be any high school girl's basketball tournament, but for the fact that the players are all wearing loose-fitting sweatshirts and Islamic hijab scarves and there are no men in the crowd. Instead, it is at the Islamic Games 2008 that the girls of New York City's Al-Madinah school team are struggling to contain the marauding forwards of the New Jersey private school Noor-Ul Iman. The Games, held in New Jersey last weekend, are the largest community sporting event for Muslims in North America, and basketball for teenage girls was a new feature of this year's event. The first tournament was staged 15 years ago but then petered out for a while. But in the past two years Muslim community leaders have worked energetically to revive the Islamic Games.
Clearly, interest has been high, with 1,500 competitors entered in events ranging from soccer and cricket to volleyball, softball and arm-wrestling. The Games are staged according to strict Islamic codes, meaning that girls are separated from boys, staging their events in a large gymnasium. Inside, away from the eyes of men, some players remove their hijabs, but most prefer to keep their heads, and skin, covered.
The Al-Madinah girls owe their presence here to Jasmina Zekic, their coach who arrived in the U.S. from Kosovo in 1995 with a business management degree, but instead went into teaching. "Sports was always in my heart," says Zekic. Last year she became the gym instructor at the Brooklyn private school where there were no organized sports for girls. So she started the basketball team. "Just because girls have to be covered I did not want them to feel different or discriminated," she says.
For the players of Al-Madinah, the hijab is just part of the uniform. "Its like WNBA our hijabs are like their headbands," says 17-year-old Emtiaz Hussain, originally from Yemen. Hussain plans to come back and coach the girl's team when she graduates high-school next year. But for most of these girls, their involvement in sports is an all-too-brief phase through which convention requires that they pass. "They cannot play in college," says Coach Zekic. "Our religion does not allow playing in shorts, exposing our skin and body movements to a male audience."
Many of the Al-Madinah girls willingly accept the limits, even when they chafe: "Allah comes before basketball, before a million dollars and before everything," says team captain Fatima Benfakiah, 18, who moved to New York from Algeria at age 2. Benfakiah admits that living with restrictions can be frustrating, at times "It's not fair, but it is something you can get over because this life is not eternal; it is the afterlife that counts."
The girls from the triumphant Noor-Ul Iman School see things differently. In their interpretation, Islam allows girls to play basketball in college. The New Jersey team has been playing for five years, and often before a mixed audience. "As long as we have our hijabs and are dressed in loose clothing, it's all right to play in front of men," says Asma Saud.
Saud, 17, and her sister Lina, 14, are Palestinian, and grew up in New Jersey playing basketball. Asma, who goes to Princeton later this year, says that college basketball is an option for Muslim girls who are determined to play. "As colleges here become more aware of our potential, they will make the rules for team uniforms more flexible to accommodate our religion," she says. "It's already happening and change can be fast"
One of her teammates, 18-year-old Fatima Ahmed, recently graduated from Noor-Ul Iman, and is a freshman at Columbia University. (She still helps out with coaching, and was eligible to play in the Islamic Games.) Ahmed says that dress code in college teams is only half the battle, and that more deep-seated cultural changes are required for more Muslim girls in America to even think about sports beyond high school. Ahmed, whose family comes from Pakistan, cannot imagine playing basketball in her country of origin. She says that many Muslim parents from conservative countries still find it unacceptable for their daughters to play sports. "They bring their cultural baggage with them," she notes. "But this will change with time." Perhaps. But for the girls of Al-Madinah whose days on the court may be numbered, their time in Coach Zekic's gym class will provide a treasured memory of a brief, but exhilarating season in which gravity was the only restraint on their freedom to soar.