There’s a new billboard on Sheikh Zayed Road, close to the Umm Suqeim interchange, and it’s selling a message that’s far more meaningful than athleisure or luxury fashion. In the advert, British-Sudanese basketball player Asma Elbadawi is robed in a dreamy, teal, tulle gown, layered over a white adidas sports top and a fitted hijab.
Basketball in hand, Elbadawi embodies radiance and confidence in the photograph, which is emblazoned with the words “Impossible is Nothing”.
Elbadawi was recruited to star in the global campaign four months ago. “I felt really honoured and excited to be part of a campaign celebrating women, and spreading the message that our goals and dreams are possible,” she tells The National.
In the video campaign, shot at night on a basketball court, Elbadawi states: “I don’t just play ball. I’m queen of the ball. And I believe in equal play. When they tried to ban my hijab, I fought, I won, and kept wearing my crown. On my court, we all rise. My story is not impossible, because I’m possible.”
The fight Elbadawi is referring to is her two-year campaign to convince the International Basketball Federation (Fiba) to remove its ban on religious head coverings on courts. She began lobbying and gathering signatures on an online petition in 2017 and, after she collected 130,000 signatures, Fiba finally reversed its rule.
“It was a surreal feeling to feel heard and accepted as we are, without having to change ourselves or remove our hijabs,” says the athlete. “I also felt that if a group of us Muslim women managed to get together and use our voices to change the history of basketball, then we have the ability to do far greater things as individuals and as a collective.”
Elbadawi’s feat was a victory for all Muslim women seeking accessibility in sports. Many hijab-wearing basketball players had previously been denied the right to play professionally due to Fiba’s strict rules about head coverings.
In 2014, the Qatar women’s team had to withdraw from the Asian Games for this reason, and American player Bilqis Abdul Qaadir found she had to choose between her hijab and her game after graduating college. She chose her headscarf and started the online campaign Muslim Girls Hoop Too, to help support and empower female Muslim basketball players.
While Fiba’s alteration regarding headwear regulation means Muslim women can now play basketball professionally, they aren’t afforded the same rights elsewhere. In France, a bill moving to ban religious head coverings in sports is currently sitting with the country’s National Assembly. When local collective Les Hijabeuses planned to protest the bill earlier this month, the demonstration was banned by the police. In India’s Southern state of Karnataka, meanwhile, hijabs are currently banned on school grounds.
“Growing up, I didn’t get to see Muslim women on billboards and on TV. I felt like my dreams and goals were limited, because how do you dream bigger without seeing someone who looks like you accomplish those things?” she says.
“I feel like this image gives the message that Muslim women are here and are excelling in their chosen fields, and they matter. I hope that by seeing me they feel seen and represented, but also choose to not limit themselves and accomplish even greater things than I have.”
In addition to being an athlete and activist, Elbadawi is a spoken-word poet. Last year, she published Belongings, a collection of poetry that explores her identity as a British-Sudanese woman and covers topics such as racism, migration, mental health and sport.
She believes that embracing diversity in sports can help extend sentiments of compassion and inclusivity beyond the courts, pitches and fields. “Sport is a universal language — so many misconceptions and stereotypes are broken down by simply training with teammates who have different life experiences,” says Elbadawi.
“When players respect each other, you see this on the court. The message of accepting each other as we are and valuing the skills we bring to the court, ripples out to fans and supporters.”