Leap of faith: Asma Elbadawi shows that Muslim women can jump

In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, we talk to the Sudanese-British basketballer, activist and spoken word poet about courting success

There were 2,000 people waiting expectantly as Asma Elbadawi stood staring out, heart pounding, hands shaking.

She was trying to remember the words to her poetry - along with what had compelled her to share them with such a large, live audience.

"I came off that stage, went to the hotel, looked at myself in the mirror, and I started crying," she tells The National. "I just remember thinking, 'Wow. A lot of people told you you're going to fail and look at you now.'"

Buoyed by her initial success, spoken word performance soon became a therapeutic means of unravelling the world for Elbadawi. She began to make a name for herself and decided to use that platform to challenge a ban on hijabs that effectively sidelined Muslim women in the sport she loved.

After playing basketball for the University of Sunderland, where she studied Photography, Video and Digital Imaging, Elbadawi petitioned the global governing body to overturn the rule.

In 2017, after a two-year campaign fought by Elbadawi and others around the world, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) relented, thereby levelling the playing field.

“The ban had affected some of my life choices,” she says. “When the opportunity came to be part of the campaign, for me it was about normalising the hijab in all aspects of our life so that young girls could dream.”

Elbadawi was born in Sudan, and grew up in West Yorkshire from the age of one after her family relocated in the 1990s so that her father could do a master’s degree in optometry. Her mother, a maths teacher, guided the young Asma’s earliest years of study, seeming to strike a perfect balance between work and play.

She spent every spare minute competing in tournaments of made-up games outdoors with her older brother, Mohammed, and the children of the other families - Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Palestinian, Libyan - in their multicultural street.

The pride in her Arabic cultural heritage is evident. When she talks about Sudan, the wide smiles indicate that it is one of her happy places. “I think people need to visit to understand why I value the connection with my family and friends there,” Elbadawi says.

“It’s very difficult to explain, to visit a part of the world where people look like you, speak the same dialect as you do, and laugh at the same jokes because at their core they have had similar experiences to you.”

Elbadawi knows that life would have been very different for her had she stayed in her birthplace.

“The first time I ever went back to Sudan and I saw the boys playing football, I wanted to join in,” she says, of her 11-year-old self. “And I did. Then my cousin came up and took me to the side. She was just like, ‘What are you doing? Girls don't do that here.’”

Even in Yorkshire, though, the expression “girls don’t jump around” was a constant refrain from the women in the community, urging more ladylike behaviour.

Fewer and fewer girls were to be seen playing in the courtyard of Asma’s youth and the boys became the significant majority. “I stayed out for as long as I could on the street,” she says.

Perhaps inevitably, she didn’t grow up to be a “girly girl”. The hoodies, jeans and trainers, the posters of cars that plastered her bedroom walls were the outward signs that she found it easier to embrace what she refers to as her masculine side.

She cites the indulgence of her mother in always providing her with two new outfits for Eid prayer each year. The big, uncomfortable confection of a dress was for the ceremony in the local mosque, and trousers and shirt for a hasty costume change at home afterwards for street sports.

“I think my mum realised that if she didn’t change my clothes, I was going to run around in these frilly dresses and ruin them,” Elbadawi says, grinning at the memory.

The stand she took over the hijab ban in basketball earned her the Rising Star in Sports trophy at the British Muslim Awards, the Women Of The Future judges high commendation in the Sport category, and The Muslim News Faezeh Hashemi Award for Excellence in Sport.

Such accolades reflect how life-changing a legacy it is for those coming behind her now. They will, she says, “see women who look like them, that they can relate to”, who have overcome the same struggles with family and community that they themselves are facing.

At the same time, she does not want “hijabi” used as a label for her activism, preferring to be thought of as a pro-choice advocate. “I don't want to be a hijabi basketball player,” Elbadawi continues on the theme, “I just want to be a basketball player. I don't want to be a hijabi poet, I want to be a poet."

Her intention is not to undermine what she did, but “I’m so much more than just that. I want to do more. I don’t want to stop at that. To me, maybe expressing mental health is far more important at this point, or what it means to be a black Muslim woman.”

Which is where the performance poetry comes in. Through it, Elbadawi processes things like her complex relationship with her own femininity, the unrealistic ideals of beauty that she felt were being imposed by society, and the eating disorder that makes it difficult for her to enjoy Ramadan.

As a pupil, she disliked writing, born of a fear of the teacher's red marking pen. She had a terror of being asked to go to the blackboard in case anyone laughed at the letters she invariably produced in the wrong order, the consequence of her undiagnosed dyslexia.

Poetry’s lack of rules and structure have provided her with an emotional outlet by setting her expression free. As Elbadawi puts it, she found her voice through words she couldn’t spell. She now views her dyslexia for what it is: infinitely less important than her strengths in comprehension and verbal communication.

The journey in self-healing has been a long one, and she concedes that she has a way to go yet. But she has overcome low self-esteem and self-consciousness, recognised that strength does not necessarily come from masculinity and that she can be feminine without obsessing about body image. Elbadawi has also accepted herself as Sudanese and "found my space in the world". She has even learnt to love her curly hair. However, she reflects that the process started well before the performance poetry, many years back when she began standing up for herself at a young age and refused to conform.

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 24: (L-R) Rapper Mos Def, musician Alicia Keys, producer Russell Simmons, and musician John Legend pose for a photo during rehearsals for HBO and Russell Simmons' "Def Poetry Jam" on February 24, 2005 in New York City.  (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Perhaps the two are inextricably linked. As a girl, she would watch Def Poetry Jam, the spoken word television series on HBO, featuring performers such as the singer-songwriter Alicia Keys who went on to become household names.

“I felt their prose was so powerful,” she says. “Because they weren't just saying words, they were talking about social issues and personal issues, and how to change the world and minds, but in such a beautiful way.

"So I always had that in the back of my mind as something I want to be one day. Like I want to change something in the world.”

Elbadawi had been performing more and more, until the lockdown restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic gave her cause to have a rethink.

The result arrived in the mail at the end of last year, the most exciting package she had ever received. Inside the brown envelope was her own copy of “Belongings”, the book of poetry she never thought she could write.

With a beautiful cover illustration by Belal Abdelrahman, the homage to Elbadawi’s Sudanese roots and to the family that allowed her to be "whoever I wanted to be" is due for release on February 11.

It is the latest in a long line of surprising accomplishments that she says were once unachievable in her mind, from becoming “Queen of the ball”, coach, mentor and Global Brand Ambassador for Adidas to winning Radio 1xtra’s Word First competition in Leeds and giving a TEDx Talk.

“Not because I wasn’t capable of it but those things don’t happen to people who look like me,” she explains, “who grew up in an area like me, that have a name like mine.”

They do for the likes of Asma Elbadawi who, in refusing to allow others to change them, choose instead to be the change.

'Belongings', written by Asma Elbadawi and with cover illustration by Belal Abdelrahman, is available from vervepoetrypress.com for £9.99 from February 11.

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