It’s 11:30 P.M. The living room is dark, and only the light of a tiny 11-inch MacBook Air assists my eyes in making out the lines of the sofas, curtains, and lamps around me. The screen shines on my tired face, as I keep myself awake not doing anything important—rather, indulging in my guilty pleasure of searching up “hijabi youtubers.”
I should go to sleep.
Of course, I don’t. While I’m the last hijabi (a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf) anyone would describe as fashionable, I sometimes mindlessly enjoy watching people vlog about their completely average day and piece together pretty outfits with flowy skirts and sparkly bracelets. When they top off the look with a hijab, it’s like—hey, she kind of looks like me.
But only kind of. The DIY videos are cute and crafty, the outfits colourful. It’s fun to watch once in a while, but I’m not about to take on that level of creativity.
I finally sleep. It’s 2:15 AM.
The next day, it’s back to work-from-home in that same living room. I can see the tan of the sofas now, thanks to the sunlight. The lattice pattern on the cushions looks just as sharp as it did on the roll at the fabric store. Maybe I do have an eye for style. Nah.
I’m on YouTube again—but this time I’m on the hunt for basketball videos. I need to find sick highlights and newsworthy post-game pressers to publish on a magazine’s website. It’s a fun job. The images of 2015 NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry shooting dazzling three-balls and King LeBron James elevating effortlessly for powerful slams reflect on the lenses of my glasses as my eyes try to keep up. I find myself wishing I had a passion to play the way I have a passion to click play.
During one of my YouTube browsing sessions, I stumble upon a video titled Basketball Short Film: Passion. I click, and I see one of those YouTuber girls who kind of looks like me.
But only kind of. YouTuber “Heyyy_SAM” wears a scarf with a baggy shirt that reads “CANADA” across the chest, and she holds a basketball. I hear her voice say, “My passion is basketball.”
Dressed head to toe in Nike gear, the girl dribbles better than I could ever dream. She drains shot after shot as her voice narrates: “[Basketball] is much more than a game. It creates the blood that pumps to compete, the pounding heartbeat that waves sound in my chest, and the fearless behavior that’s inhabited by my bones.”
I keep watching. What can I say? I’m intrigued.
As the short film displays glimpses of cities around the world sprinkled with quick interviews of people who love the game, I see a familiar face. It’s Indira Kaljo, a former NCAA basketball player at Tulane University who then played professionally in Europe. Some seconds later, I see another face I know – Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, the first woman who played NCAA ball while wearing hijab. I interviewed both Kaljo and Abdul-Qaadir previously about their experiences with basketball and hijab – two subjects all three of us consider defining aspects of our lives. So this YouTuber (with a modest 22,644 subscriber count at the time of writing) knows them too, huh?
I finally get in touch with Heyyy_SAM, a 17-year-old entering her final year of high school. Her real name is Samira Zabian. Born in Lebanon, she moved to Canada around the same time I started watching basketball, nearly ten years ago.
I ask a typical question, the same one Samira asks the people who appear in her short film: “What does basketball mean to you?”
“To me, basketball means—let’s see if I can put this into words,” she starts. “It means a second chance. Since I moved here, I was totally new. I didn’t know anybody, and so basketball was a way for me to meet people and make new friends.”
Whether a relationship with a member of the audience, her teammates, or her coaches, basketball was the uniting factor for Zabian and many of her pals. She plays the point guard position for both her high school team and her club team in Calgary.
Basketball is what initially connected her with Kaljo as well. Soon after forming that bond, Zabian landed a position on the Youth Board of Global Aktivne, Kaljo’s foundation that encourages women worldwide to be active.
When Kaljo started wearing hijab, she found it difficult to continue playing basketball professionally due to regulations enforced by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which oversees leagues in multiple countries. In short, hijab was not welcome on the court. With the fight against the hijab ban progressing slowly, Kaljo founded Global Aktivne to work with women and girls everywhere. The organization holds numerous camps, fundraisers, and workshops to positively impact the narrative of women and sport.
These goals resonated greatly with Zabian, who was excited to be a part of the organization’s Youth Board. After she started wearing hijab, she wasn’t sure herself what to do when it came to playing basketball.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if I can [play basketball] with the hijab on,’” Zabian said. “But when I found Indira, I decided to make some YouTube videos about how to wear the sports hijab… to bring awareness to girls who want to wear [it]. Just because you’re gonna put it on, doesn’t mean you have to stop doing something that you love to do.”
Zabian, a lover of DIYs, crafts, and basketball, uploaded a video called “How To Play Sports While Wearing Hijab” to let her young Muslim girl viewers know that sports and the headscarf do not need to conflict.
When she first started playing basketball with her hijab on, Zabian admits she felt a little weird. Her modified uniform—a long-sleeve shirt under her jersey, leggings under her shorts, and of course, a hijab—made her stand out. But when the ball tips, the point guard tunes it all out to focus on the task at hand: winning.
“I would get stares obviously, and it would make me feel pretty uncomfortable,” Zabian said. “But as soon as the game would start, my focus was on the time, on scoring, and on winning. As soon as I set my mind to we need to win, that’s what I went after.”
Zabian’s winning mentality crosses sport borders. She’s the total athlete, playing both soccer and track and field in addition to basketball. Out of her high school’s 1,700 students, she was chosen as the 2015 Athlete of the Year.
“I was really shocked when they called my name,” Zabian said. “I was literally the only person at the athletic banquet wearing a hijab.”
There’s definitely a bit of a shock factor involved, although perhaps, there shouldn’t be. Muslim women in sports are becoming more familiar. From Somali American tween girls in Minnesota designing modest basketball uniforms earlier this year, to the Qatari Women’s National Team walking off the court to protest FIBA’s ban in 2014 – the realization is slowly dawning on the world. There’s nothing weird about Muslim girls in hijab playing basketball. Or soccer. Or track and field. Or anything else for that matter.
“Obviously, when you see me, you kind of think—I don’t know, you think a lot of things because I don’t look like a normal basketball player,” Zabian said. “But no matter what you look like or where you come from, sport is always a really great thing to get into. Your look doesn’t define you in sport.”
Zabian is right. Your look doesn’t define you in sport – your passion does. I click play on her short film again, and I hear her voice say, “It is the recognition of a burning passion that leads the way to success.”
Now, she’s wearing a Derrick Rose jersey. Her inspirational words continue.
“Winners fall, but they do not quit. It is important to fall, because we cannot rise if we do not do so. Failing is a reminder that it is not easy,” Zabian narrates. “Be the one to rise above the odds because of your failures. Do not be the one to sink because of them. The difference between good and great is exactly that.”
I click pause to let Samira Zabian’s passionate words settle in my mind. I think of her fellow students who saw the same video and heard the same words when she showed it in her communications technology class. I think of the guests at the athletic banquet who witnessed her receive Athlete of the Year. I think of the friendships she made on the court and the hate she silenced with her skills. I think of the girls she inspires through her YouTube channel and work with Global Aktivne.
Her passion is indeed basketball, and after the sport gave her a second chance, she’s showing people around the world their second chance is waiting to be seized too.
I finally click subscribe, close my laptop, and smile.
Words: Habeeba Husain
Illustration: Rebecca Clarke