“Defense!” the players yell to one another as the clock winds down and the opposition bears down on their basket in the dying minutes of the championship game. “Play defense!” The event could be any high school girl’s basketball tournament, but for the fact that the players are all wearing loose-fitting sweatshirts and Islamic hijab scarves — and there are no men in the crowd. Instead, it is at the Islamic Games 2008 that the girls of New York City’s Al-Madinah school team are struggling to contain the marauding forwards of the New Jersey private school Noor-Ul Iman.
The Games, held in New Jersey last weekend, are the largest community sporting event for Muslims in North America, and basketball for teenage girls was a new feature of this year’s event. The first tournament was staged 15 years ago but then petered out for a while. But in the past two years Muslim community leaders have worked energetically to revive the Islamic Games.
Clearly, interest has been high, with 1,500 competitors entered in events ranging from soccer and cricket to volleyball, softball and arm-wrestling. The Games are staged according to strict Islamic codes, meaning that girls are separated from boys, staging their events in a large gymnasium. Inside, away from the eyes of men, some players remove their hijabs, but most prefer to keep their heads, and skin, covered.
The Al-Madinah girls owe their presence here to Jasmina Zekic, their coach who arrived in the U.S. from Kosovo in 1995 with a business management degree, but instead went into teaching. “Sports was always in my heart,” says Zekic. Last year she became the gym instructor at the Brooklyn private school where there were no organized sports for girls. So she started the basketball team. “Just because girls have to be covered I did not want them to feel different or discriminated,” she says.
For the players of Al-Madinah, the hijab is just part of the uniform. “Its like WNBA — our hijabs are like their headbands,” says 17-year-old Emtiaz Hussain, originally from Yemen. Hussain plans to come back and coach the girl’s team when she graduates high-school next year.