Asma Elbadawi

"I fought the law so female basketball players could wear hijabs - this is why preparation is key to making a difference"

As part of our ‘The Innovators’ series in partnership with skincare experts Shiseido as they re-boot their #1 skin-strengthening Ultimune face serum, Stylist is highlighting other performance-driven trailblazers in their fields. This week we’re talking to Asma Elbadawi, the basketball player and poet campaigning for change… 

Not many people deliberately set out to change the course of history during their lifetime. But sometimes, we’re compelled to fight for equality when our ability to succeed is under threat. Then, we often discover an inner strength we never knew we had.  

’Changing the state of play’ took on a new level of meaning when British-Sudanese basketball player, activist and self-described ‘Queen of the Ball’ Asma Elbadawi discovered a ban on religious headgear in professional basketball. 

As part of a group of global activists, Elbadawi lobbied the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to overturn the rule. 

In May 2017, after a two-year campaign in which the #FIBAAllowHijab petition gained more than 130,000 supporters worldwide, FIBA backed down, allowing players wearing religious headwear to compete professionally.

Basketball isn’t the only arena in which Elbadawi is using her voice to innovate and inspire change. Away from the court, she’s making waves as a spoken word poet, raising awareness of vital social issues which range from mental health to gender roles and beauty ideals. 

These powerful performance pieces form the basis of her debut poetry collection, Belongings, which explores Elbadawi’s dual heritage. 

As a sports inclusivity consultant, she also campaigns against stereotypes in sport and empowers young people from BAME backgrounds to take up space in the sports they love.

Here, Elbadawi reflects on the power in speaking up and refusing to conform, and the steps she’s taking now to create change for future generations.  

The FIBA fight


“The fight against FIBA actually started entirely by coincidence.

“I started doing poetry and I ended up winning a competition with BBC Radio 1Xtra for Leeds. I got a mentor, and through our conversations, she guided me to share other parts of who I am – the sports side of me and the basketball.

“Through doing that, and through performing and being invited on different TV shows and getting a lot more media coverage, I got connected with a woman called Indira Kaljo. 

“She’s American-Bosnian and she used to play professional basketball, but she started wearing the hijab and she wasn’t allowed to play any more. She called me about an unrelated project but we started talking and then eventually we connected on the basketball, and she told me about the campaign that they were part of, and the fact that there was a ban, and she invited me to be a part of it. 

“I didn’t even think twice. It was almost like in that moment, every barrier that I didn’t realise existed that was deterring me from even dreaming about being a professional athlete, not just a professional basketball player, became apparent.

“The campaign lasted four years, and I got involved in the last two years. Indira asked me to ask the girls that I played with who wore the hijab to be involved and then we all campaigned. But there were so many of us: there were 12 of us, from Indonesia to Nigeria to USA and Saudi Arabia, and we all campaigned in our different communities and petitioned FIBA.

“When I found out that the ban had been lifted, I couldn’t believe it, to be honest.

“To think that I was a girl from Yorkshire who just wanted to play sport, for it to actually become something that I changed history with.

“Obviously, we did it as a collective, but when I look at it from an individual point of view, it wasn’t something that I set out to do as a young person, I just wanted to play and that was it.

“A lot of things changed from that point onwards – in terms of how I see myself, how I view my own voice and the possibilities of continuing to use my voice.” 

Linking mind and body

“There’s definitely a link between preparing your mind and body. 

“The first few years I was trying to be a completely different player to my size and my height. Before I go on court now the mental state I try to put myself in is more ‘Ok, you’ve done this 1,000 times. You’ve trained. You’ve done the work. You have your teammates. You can call for help when you need it.’

“Some days you just have to make sure that you’ve eaten properly or that whatever’s going on in your outside world stops the minute you hit the court. It’s a lot of processing.   

“Having your own little routine definitely helps, for example I find that there’s a mindfulness aspect to doing my skincare prep.

“When I’m training, if it’s outside I’ll make sure I use a sun block and a moisturiser to prepare my skin. 

“If I’m playing all-girls teams I’ll make more of an effort. I don’t want to be out there with ashy knees! At the end of the day it’s about feeling good about yourself. 

“I always start by washing my face with a cleanser that removes impurities and balances my skin, I let it air dry, and then protect my skin using Shiseido Ultimune face serum followed by a skin moisturiser with some SPF in it.

“Ultimune face serum is perfect for my skin because it’s light and absorbs quickly (ideal when I’m in a pre-game rush). I also know it’s working hard and delivering strength and moisture to protect my skin from the elements. 

“It’s weird because I wouldn’t go to training or a game without taking a shower for example. People will say ‘It’s fine just take a shower after - you’re going to get sweaty anyway.’ But when you get ready and do your skincare you’re also preparing your mind and relaxing and de-stressing. 

“You’re putting yourself in a position where you look good and you feel good. 

“With basketball, it’s a stylish sport. You want your trainers to look cool, you want your outfit to look cool and you want your skin to look glowy.”

Preparing to make a difference


“Having some kind of routine and support network helped a lot when it came to my campaigning and still helps me to this day.

“In terms of FIBA, there was quite a few of us campaigning at the same time and we had organisations that came on board to help out like who provided a lot of support.

“We also had a lot of support online that prepared us for the importance of what we were doing.

“When it comes to my poetry, I tend to go to the venue I’m performing at a day early and spend time by myself to prepare. 

“If I’m doing make-up I’ll take my time with it. I don’t want to rush the process of getting ready in terms of my outfits and the way that I look. I take my time with that and I’ll always ask to sit in the green room before my set.

“Because of my dyslexia I don’t like too much information before my own set because then I take in other people’s emotions and it disrupts my thinking process. 

“For basketball it’s a bit different. I’ll imagine what I could do in different scenarios and it makes it a lot easier on the court because I’ll already have a plan. 

“Basketball and poetry require different parts of who I am. 

“One requires me to be very vulnerable and allow people in and to see my weakness, but basketball is completely different. You can’t show them your weakness and you need to appear strong even if you’re not. Sometimes I have a hard time with the difference but I can’t imagine not having one or the other.”

Why representation matters

“Representation is so important because without it you might not even realise the opportunities that are open to you.

“Take my own experience. In my university basketball team I saw people come and play against us and they were wearing the hijab. 

“I remember there was a specific team we played, who were actually from my hometown, and one girl was wearing a hijab. It made me feel like I could play in that team when I moved home.

“As a Muslim, as a Sudanese, as an African Arab woman, or if I was in Sudan or Malaysia or any other Muslim-identifying country, it’s very normal to see girls playing sport. 

“There might be less, and the community might not be 100% with it, but it’s a very normal thing to be wearing a hijab and playing. 

“But it felt like a Western phenomenon where to be seen wearing a hijab, you were almost like an outsider.”

“I didn’t think there was actually a rule that could be the reason why I never saw women like me hit the elite levels of basketball.’

“Even outside of basketball, representation is so key. Take the beauty industry, for example.

“Inclusivity is really important because we all have different needs in terms of our skin and we don’t have the same beliefs. There are people who don’t want products from animals, and there are people who want halal products for example. It’s important that everyone feels included. 

“There’s nothing worse than your friend recommending a brand, for example a foundation, only for you to get there and discover they don’t have your shade. 

“Sometimes it’s not about having a full range of everything, it’s having a couple of hero products that are really good and that people know.”

The future for Muslim women

“My advice to the next generation of Muslim women would be not be afraid. Go into those spaces where you don’t see other people like you in. 

“A lot of girls that I meet tell me that they enter spaces, they don’t see anyone that looks like them, and so they leave. 

“It’s so important to stay in that space because someone is going to come at some point and they’ll recognise themselves in you and stay. When that happens you won’t be the only one anymore. 

“I fought against social injustice in sport because it wasn’t easy for me to be in those spaces as a Muslim girl, but I still went every week. 

“I would cry every single week after these games and I still played, because I wanted to play basketball, and I knew deep down, ‘I’m not going to be at this club forever and I don’t wanna go somewhere else and be learning from zero, so I’m going to take whatever skills I can from this space, and then take it to another space.’

“The reason I had so much fight in me for the campaign was because that was my opportunity to say, ‘Hang on, we’ve been in these spaces and we’re trying to be more visible in these spaces, and you’re not even giving us the chance to do so.’ 

“I don’t think people understand how powerful it is to see someone who looks like you. 

“It can change your whole perspective of yourself. Your whole dreams can alter the moment you see someone who looks like you. You think ‘I can do that, I’m going to do it really well, and I’m going to win.’ “

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