Sports Illustrated Profiles Basketball Star, Sparks Controversy

Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir will be the first basketball player in NCAA Division I history to play in full Muslim dress — but did a Sports Illustrated profile make too much of this fact?

The profile, by Selena Roberts, touches on Abdul-Qaadir's achievements — she's the first high school player in Massachusetts history, male or female, to score 3,000 points — and on her experiences as a Muslim — she's discovered that Under Armour is best for staying covered and staying cool. Roberts writes:

Some nights on the floor in visiting gyms, she would hear the catcalls derived from the fear of the unknown, shouted in stupidity: "Terrorist!" But slowly, the more heads she turned with her step-back threes and her sleights of hand, the more minds Bilqis opened. This wasn't grudging tolerance but joyous acceptance of an exceptional player and student. Not only does she possess a cashmere-soft touch and flinty defensive skills, but she's also on the honor roll, with an interest in premed and the stomach for the Discovery Health Channel.

Rachael Larimore of Slate's XX Factor praises the profile, calling it "uplifting" and praising how "grounded" Abdul-Qaadir is. She also notes that Abdul-Qaadir's Muslim dress is "what warrants this player primo real estate in SI."

Faith at Muslimah Media Watch takes issue with this. She writes,

Bilquis' [sic] hijab was the focus for a recent Sports Illustrated profile. [...] The whole piece serves to "otherize" Bilqis and hijabis in general, rather than simply being a general sports article covering a high school basketball star.

She also writes that the details about Abdul-Qaadir's dress "could've been covered in a paragraph at the most, but Roberts drags them out for the entire article."

It is unfortunate that the only way a girl can get "primo real estate in SI" is by being perceived as unusual — and that coverage of Abdul-Qaadir must focus on how she's different rather than how she's impressive. On the other hand, Abdul-Qaadir will be the first player to wear Muslim dress in Division I basketball games, and as such she's not just a curiosity, she's also a boundary-breaker. In what is still a difficult political climate, Abdul-Qaadir's story can educate non-Muslims, showing them that wearing the hijab doesn't mean giving up sports. And a story about someone who looks different being accepted and celebrated, especially in the cutthroat world of high school, teaches us all how we should behave. But Faith's point might be that Abdul-Qaadir isn't that different, and that by focusing on her differences we just perpetuate the kind of thinking that led the kids in the gym to yell, "Terrorist." Maybe the question is best framed by Abdul-Qaadir herself. She says,

When some people come at me with, 'Oh, is that a tablecloth on your head?' — it's like, really, don't. If you're going to have that kind of question, don't ask me. But some people are truly honest in asking a question, like, 'Oh, I don't want to be rude, but why do you wear that?' That's the kind of question I'd rather answer.

Is Selena Roberts the tablecloth kid, trying to make Abdul-Qaadir look different and weird? Or is she the more thoughtful person asking for information about Abdul-Qaadir's religion? And does either question have a place in Sports Illustrated?

Enlightening The Clothes-Minded [SI]
Feel-Good Story For A Monday [XX Factor]
Putting All Their Eggs in One Basket: Sports Illustrated Profiles Star Basketballer's Headscarf [Muslimah Media Watch]