Hijab Success Story: Basketball Star

Geoff Calkins: Muslim basketball player Bilqis Abdul-

Qaadir prepares for first season with Memphis

By Geoff Calkins

Friday, October 15, 2010

At just before 5 p.m. in the Elma Roane Fieldhouse, the point guard signals to the head coach and jogs off the court toward the locker room.

She returns in five minutes. She resumes practicing with her Memphis Tiger teammates.

“It’s not a big deal, not if you understand what’s going on,” she says.

Maybe there’s a lesson there.

We could apply it to the fracas at ground zero, apply it whenever some lunatic minister wants to strike back by burning a sacred book.

It’s not a big deal.

Not if you understand what’s going on.

Yes, we could learn a thing or two by listening to the point guard.

Her name is Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, but her teammates all call her “Qisi” — pronounced Keezy — for short.

As in: “Qisi has to pray five times a day.”

And: “We all know Qisi has to leave practice to pray.”

And finally: “Qisi is a Muslim but except for what she believes, she’s a lot like us.”

All actual quotes from the Tigers. Who knew we could learn so much about tolerance from a basketball team?

But we can and we should, starting as early as this evening when the men’s and women’s teams will be introduced at FedExForum as part of the annual Memphis Madness shindig.

All the attention will be on the men. They’re a civic phenomenon. But when Abdul-Qaadir runs out onto the court, she’ll make history.

She’s the only Muslim woman playing Division 1 basketball. She’s the only Division 1 player who wears the hijab, the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women when they’re in the presence of men.

She’s also the only player who will be introduced tonight who has dined with President Barack Obama. That was last year, when Abdul-Qaadir was invited to the White House to break the Ramadan fast.

“It was amazing,” she said. “My name card was right next to his.”

And then the president singled her out. No pressure or anything, eh?

“She’s not even 5-5,” he said, from the lectern. “Where is Bilqis?”

“Right here,” she said.

“Stand up Bilqis,” he said. “I want everybody to know. She’s got heels on. She’s 5-5. She recently told a reporter, ‘I’d like to really inspire a lot of young Muslim girls if they want to play basketball. Anything is possible. They can do it too.’ As an honors 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.”

And Joe Jackson thinks he has a lot pressure? Abdul-Qaadir was hyped up by the president.

Then she blew out her knee.

“During a pickup game last September,” she said. “They reconstructed my ACL.”

So this will be Abdul-Qaadir’s real debut in Memphis, the first time she takes the floor looking quick and gifted and — yes — just a little different than everybody else.

She wears Under Armour to cover her legs and arms. She says it beats the heck out of the cotton sweatpants and shirts she used to have to wear.

“People ask me why I cover,” she said. “I don’t mind the questions. Questions are good. I’ve answered a lot of them.”

In a way, that has been the one good thing that came from the injury. Some of the pressure has been lifted from Abdul-Qaadir. Her teammates know her as a friend instead of a curiosity.

“They know all about my religion by now, ” said Abdul-Qaadir. “They even look out for me. If we’re all in a room and a guy walks in, they’re like, ‘Qisi, put your thing on!'”

So maybe they don’t call it a hijab. It’s the spirit that counts, isn’t it? The ignorant burn books. The open-hearted say, “Put your thing on!”

It is possible that Abdul-Qaadir will encounter some nastiness on the road, of course. The ground zero dispute has stirred up hate. As if there wasn’t already enough of it out there.

“In high school, someone called me Osama bin Laden’s daughter,” said Abdul-Qaadir. “It was at Holyoke Catholic. We beat them every time we played them.”

Some people turn the other cheek; Abdul-Qaadir turns and heads in for another basket.

That is how she makes her way. That is how she serves her God. She plays basketball and she answers questions and she becomes a trusted friend and a valued teammate.

“I don’t watch the news, honestly,” she said. “I don’t get into all that. I practice my faith and try to treat everybody right.”

Maybe there’s a lesson there.

To reach Geoff Calkins, call 529-2364 or e-mail calkins@commercial Visit his blog at


2 comments on “Hijab Success Story: Basketball Star

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