SIMRAN JEET SINGH
Iwas born and raised in the United States, and like countless other Americans, I love playing sports.
I was also born and raised in a Sikh family, and like so many other Sikhs, I love my
While these two identities are not exclusive to one another, one major organization is taking a stand that essentially
pushes me to make a choice between the
two. Until and unless the International
Basketball Federation (FIBA) does not
remove its ban against religious minorities wearing headcoverings during basketball games, millions of young children
around the world will be discouraged
from playing basketball.
FIBA’s current policy is not right and it
is not fair. Since its invention, basketball
has served to bring people around the
world together. This is the value of sport
in our world. What kind of society are we
living in where we begin to use participation in sports to divide people and make
some feel unwelcome.
Many of my closest friends and best
memories have come from my time on the
basketball court. No one ever had a problem with my turban and beard, and it did
not in any way — as FIBA has suggested
— pose a threat to anyone’s physical safety
—not mine, not my teammates, and not
my opponents. By denying young people
the opportunity to play sports simply
because of how they look or what they
believe goes against everything that we
have been taught to believe.
No one should have to choose between
practicing their religion or pursuing their
dreams. We don’t allow our governments to put us in such
positions, and we rightly insist on preserving the freedom to
practice religion freely. So, what gives FIBA the right to put us
in such positions? No other governing body imposes such discriminatory bans on religious minorities.
For being an international organization, it is remarkable to
observe FIBA’s lack of sensitivity and tolerance for diverse religious communities all around the world.
Muslim women have been the most affected by this ban, and
some national teams have had to sit out matches because of
this rule. Jews around the world have been challenged by
these rules. And we have seen that FIBA compelled Sikh men
on India’s national team to either abandon their turbans or
their basketball dreams.
My brother Darsh Preet Singh was the first turbaned Sikh to
play college basketball in the United States. He had to receive
special permissions at every level to ensure the right to play
with his religious identity. He received racial abuse when he
traveled, from opponents, opposing fans, and even other
coaches. He helped pave the way for Sikhs to play in collegiate
sports, and he showed countless young kids that it was possible to accomplish anything while maintaining a distinct religious identity. He also showed that one does not have to
choose between religion and sport — it’s possible to do both.
FIBA should follow the NCAA’s lead by upholding cultural
sensitivity and religious tolerance. It is not fair for a governing
body to assume that everyone should look the same and there-
fore make rules and enforce them on the basis of majoritarian
preferences. When governing bodies do such a thing, they
inevitably end up trampling on the rights of minority commu-
In many instances, including the one at stake here, the only
way for minority communities to preserve their rights is by
standing up and protesting against unfair and discriminatory
At the end of the day, this entire issue is about nothing more
than civil rights. Should governing bodies like FIBA have the
power to discriminate against people simply because of their
religious practices and traditions? It is disingenuous of them
to hide behind the argument of safety because, frankly, there
is absolutely no evidence that Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs, or
Jewish yarmulkes pose safety threats to anyone on a basketball court.
It is time for FIBA to modernize its outdated, insensitive,
and intolerant policies. It’s time for FIBA to do the right thing
and overturn its discriminatory ban against religious minorities. It’s time for FIBA to open its doors to people of all backgrounds and let them play.
Dr Simran Jeet Singh is an Assistant Professor in the
Department of Religion at Trinity University. He is the Senior
Religion Fellow for the Sikh Coalition, a Truman National
Security Fellow for the Truman National Security Project, and
a Handa Fellow in Interreligious Communication.
Iam a woman. I am a basketball player. And I am a Muslim. Since when did those identities become mutually exclusive?
According to the International Basketball Federation
(FIBA), I shouldn’t be allowed to wear my turban or
hijab while playing basketball. As if my personal expression of faith somehow invalidates my skill on the basketball court. I remember being a junior in high school —
only my second year playing basketball, and my first as a
starting center on Junior Varsity — and feeling vaguely
frightened that the referee wouldn’t let me play. If my
coach hadn’t vehemently stood up for my right to wear a
scarf and play basketball, FIBA would have had its way
even at my local high school.
Not only is it discriminatory
and intolerant to prohibit hijab-wearing women from playing, but
it also creates a false dichotomy
— that basketball and Islam are
mutually exclusive. If anything,
some of the greatest players of all
time in the NBA, including Kar-eem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem ‘The
Dream’ Olajuwon, and even Shaquille O’Neal identify as Muslim.
Yet they have an important advantage: they are male. Somehow,
fasting during Ramadan without
food and water is possible for a
professional basketball player like
Hakeem — yet wearing a scarf
and playing is impossible.
Any fighter for justice and lover
of equality must applaud Representatives Joe Crowley (
Democ-rat-New York and Ami Bera (
D-California) for sending a letter to
FIBA decrying the discrimination
against hijabi/turban wearing
players. Notably, a ban on turbans
would not only affect Muslim
women, but would also prevent
practicing Sikh men who wear
turbans from playing. Thus, this
issue isn’t just about gender — it’s
about religious freedom.
America’s foundation is based
on the principle of freedom of
religion and separation of church
and state. Just as the government
has no right to regulate religion,
similarly religious bodies cannot
impose their beliefs in government. So, why does FIBA feel empowered to discriminate based on
Indeed, with role models like Ibtihaj Muhammad —
who rocked her role on the US Fencing Team and won
the US a bronze medal — Muslim women finally can
look to such athletes as a standard to achieve. If Muhammad can be a ferocious athlete while still gracefully
owning her identity as a Muslim woman, why shouldn’t
we? Why can’t I wear a hijab on the court? What logic
prevents me from being true to myself as well as a baller
on the court?
Enough is enough.
FIBA has no excuse. Rejecting our fundamental right
to freedom — as hijab wearing basketball players — far
exceeds the scope of FIBA’s authority. There is no excuse
for injustice. If I am proud enough to wear my hijab on
the street, I should also be able to wear it on the court.
There is no mutual exclusivity between Islam and basketball; if anything, FIBA is creating a problem when
there isn’t one.
Let us unite, as Muslims, Sikhs, and other lovers of
faith to fight against injustice, wherever it may appear.
In both public and private spheres, I am a Muslim. I
am a woman. I am a basketball player. And I am proud
of each of these identities.
Engie Salama is a University of California San Francisco
Pharmacy School student, who is also highly involved in
interfaith activities in her community.
A Sikh and a
Muslim who love
to play basketball
reflect on FIBA’s
ban on Sikh
hijabs and Jewish
Left, Darsh Preet Singh became the first turbaned Sikh basketball player in the NCAA.