"I never felt more like myself": A professional basketball player's hijab journey
As a college basketball player, Batouly Camara made three Final Four appearances with the University of Connecticut. She’s the daughter of immigrants, a children’s book author and she’s founded her own nonprofit to help women and girls get access to sports and education. And if that’s not enough, she’s also one of the first Muslim women to play professional basketball in hijab.
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IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
I qualified for my first Olympic team back in 2016.
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This summer in Rio, she will become the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab…
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I mean, do you know how important that is? And what is a hijab?
IBTIHAJ: I knew immediately that this journey was bigger than me. I was in a time and place where I had the opportunity to change the narrative for a global community; to set a new precedent of, you know, who a Muslim woman could be.
You know, society never depicts Muslim women as athletes. We don’t see ourselves, you know, when we walk in the sporting goods stores. So choosing to wear hijab, and not being forced to wear hijab by anyone, and feeling really comfortable and using my voice, I feel like I was ultimately shattering so many stereotypes.
When I put on my fencing mask for the first time at 12 years old, there was so much power in that moment. No one knew underneath my mask that I was a girl or that, you know, I had brown skin or that I was Muslim and that I wore hijab. It was really more so about what I could bring to the table as an athlete. Like, how good could you be? That is what the foundation of sport is built on. It’s about bridging people from different cultures, from different backgrounds who may even speak different languages, and uniting them under this umbrella of, really, this ultimate goal of winning. That’s what I’ve always loved about sport, and I feel like it’s just a space where we can really create meaningful change in the world.
IBTIHAJ: From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Whenever an athlete steps onto a field, court or fencing strip, they bring with them all that they are: their background, their lived experiences, their religion. But for some of us, our faith is a bit more visible than it is for others.
As a college basketball player, Batouly Camara made three FInal Four appearances with the University of Connecticut. She’s the daughter of immigrants, a children’s book author and she’s founded her own nonprofit to help women and girls get access to sports and education. And if that’s not enough, she’s also one of the first Muslim women to play professional basketball in hijab.
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IBTIHAJ: As-salaam alaikum, Batouly! How are you?
Alaikum-salaam. I’m doing well. How are you?
IBTIHAJ: I’m good. Hamdullah, It’s so good to see you, to hear your voice. I’m just going to jump right in. I’m hoping we can start by clarifying something: As far as I can tell, you’re the first Muslim woman to play professional basketball in hijab. But I keep hearing things that say you’re one of the first. So which is it?
BATOULY: I am one of the first. I was the first one in Spain. It’s been amazing to be connected to a few professional players in France and Egypt. So national teams such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia do have hijab-wearing women.
IBTIHAJ: That must be really liberating feeling, to not be the only, you know, one on the court wearing hijab. Having other women who share the same faith. Being a representation of millions of people around the globe. You didn’t wear hijab on the court at UConn, but it’s clear that you had been thinking about it for a while. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
BATOULY: Yes, it was — it was really meaningful to me to understand that other women and other girls were playing the sport that they loved in hijab. And when I played at the University of Connecticut, and I was undergoing that transition, I always say that journey started probably two years prior to me actually taking hijab. But it was the next step of my spiritual journey that I didn’t necessarily have the courage to make on the basketball court. I was wearing hijab in other spaces, but could never have the confidence to do it and to live my, my full self on the court, in a place that was so important to me. And so for me, there are about three, you know, core women who were in my circle when I was making that transition. Once I had a circle of amazing women who were in sport and who were wearing hijab, that definitely gave me a lot of confidence to do so, and to know there’s space for me and there’s space for us in any facet, any game, and in any space.
IBTIHAJ: So like you said, hijab is a journey. And it’s different for every single woman. It was more of a lengthy journey for you. It took about two years before you made that decision to wear hijab full time. Can you talk a little bit about why it was difficult to make that jump?
BATOULY: I knew that once I started wearing it on the court, it was — it was no longer personal. And that’s what people don’t understand. It’s a personal journey. And when you’re at some of the biggest stages in your life, you no longer have the luxury of, of silence — if that is a luxury. You no longer have the ability to not speak on issues — which I’ve always wanted to, but it just was no longer mine and my journey. It became everyone’s. It became a questioning. It became a “why.” And, you know, so many different reasons that I had to kind of explain, you know, for my journey and something that was really personal to me. But then, saying that — it’s a privilege to be on this platform, and that — if I have a chance to speak for, for those who don’t necessarily get this opportunity, I have to take it. And it would be absolutely not OK for me not to do that, not to use this short-time platform that I had in order to spread a message that was really important to me, but also that represented others.
IBTIHAJ: I love that. Using your platform in meaningful ways is so important to me, as well. I know that not everyone was happy about your decision to wear hijab. Can you tell me a little bit about the agent who tried to change your decision?
BATOULY: Yes, there was an agent when I decided to go play basketball professionally — and like any athlete, this is the pinnacle of your career. This is what you look forward to as, as a young person, and as you’re striving, and you’re going through the day-to-day actions of trying to improve your craft, and — and I had very simple wants. I had very simple lists, you know? I wanted to get a certain amount. I wanted to be in a safe country, and I wanted to play in my hijab. And he was like, “That is absolutely not possible. That will not happen.” He said, “I don’t care what you do off of the court, you will not wear it out on the court.” And it was very explicit. And I was a bit taken aback, but also, at that moment, I didn’t know what to say. This was my first agent. I thought this was someone who was great for me, who would really represent me and want me to do my best. And so I didn’t say anything in that moment, but it really triggered me deeply. It didn’t sit right with me. I’m so thankful that I had enough support to say that “This is not the agent who is going to represent you.”
IBTIHAJ: It’s so important to have representation that understands your mission and understands who you are — and also just the importance of what representation and inclusion means, right? Not just off the court, but on the court as well. Can you take me to that moment when you finally stepped onto the court as a professional basketball player in hijab? What did that feel like for you, especially having people around you who were against this decision? What did that moment feel like? What was the crowd’s reaction?
BATOULY: In that moment, I never felt more like myself. To finally have the opportunity where there was no switch happening, there was no, you know, unveiling happening. It was just me, and I felt so much like myself, and I wouldn’t trade that first moment for anything, because it really rooted me in the decision that I made and the woman that I wanted to be and the life that I wanted to live. It was kind of like an inner moment and then an outer moment. As I looked around, I said, “Oh my gosh.” All I could picture was my sisters, and those who are playing around the world and who were representing me, and I was now — had the ability and the privilege to represent them on one of the highest stages of basketball. So it was a very surreal moment. And it just made me remember: I don’t want to take any of this for granted. And so I felt like myself, I felt like this was really important for me and for those who were experiencing this and for those who were going to experience a moment like this.
IBTIHAJ: You would almost think that that would be the most difficult part, right? That last step in finally making that decision. And it’s like God granted this permission and ease for you in that moment. How important were your teammates during this time?
BATOULY: My teammates were incredibly important, because they just know me as me. You know, when people kind of see you how you see you, it’s really important. So we had discussions and we had conversations early on. And I think it was important for my teammates to see, before our first game, the questioning that was happening. So people would ask different questions, and I already had conversations with them, so now they were speaking. You don’t speak the language, but I saw them defending me in little ways that allowed us to build trust, because for them, they saw me as their teammate. The person who was going to, you know, have their back on the court, the person who they had just went to, you know, war with in practice for over two months. And so for, for outsiders to say anything was not okay with them, because now I was their teammate, and that’s how they saw me. And that was that.
IBTIHAJ: And that’s one of the beautiful things about sport, right, is the ability to bridge cultures and people from different backgrounds, people who speak different languages. And have that support, I’m sure, made your journey a lot easier. We oftentimes forget how difficult it was for the people before us to kind of, you know, pave the way for our journeys to even be possible. I know that I had that — not just being a hijab-wearing athlete, but particularly in the sport of fencing as a black athlete. There are a lot of prolific black athletes who made my journey possible. And for a long time, the International Basketball Federation — also known as FIBA — had a rule against headgear on the court. So for those who don’t know the story, can you explain a bit about how that rule was lifted?
BATOULY: Yes. So a group of women, one of which was my really close friend Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, wanted to go play basketball professionally, and there was a ban against any headgear. And essentially, it was a safety thing. And there were a ton of resources and documents that said that no one had ever been hurt wearing headgear, and that this was a rule that was honestly policing women’s body and policing sport as a whole. But they had signatures, they went with international lawyers, and it was a huge, huge process for them. And I think — over two years it took for them to get the hijab ban lifted, as well as, you know, all international and all religious headgear and any kind of headgear, essentially. That was a really big step for them, and it was interesting for that to be a full-circle moment — as I was in college and struggling with my hijab journey, to see, you know, Bilquis go through her journey of not being able to play the game she loves and switched into a role of coaching. And then once I got to Spain, I remember the first day I was there, she called me and said, “Spain was my dream country. Spain was where I wanted to go, and I’m so happy that you’re there.” And I said, “I’m so happy you fought that fight two years ago for me to be here.” So it was a really beautiful full-circle moment.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
IBTIHAJ: And now back to my conversation with Batouly Camara. You’re the daughter of immigrants, and your parents came to the United States from Guinea in the 1990s. What did your mother teach you about opportunities for girls and women in your home country?
BATOULY: My mom taught me at an early age that the opportunities were extremely limited. Celebrated, but limited. If you’re a young girl growing up, you had two options, and the first was to be a wife. That was your primary identity. That is what you strive to be. And the second was, was a mom. And the third would probably be a domesticated worker. And that — that was it. And so opportunities are very limited for girls. And it wasn’t until I started playing sports that I realized that women had other identities outside of those three.
IBTIHAJ: I know that for me, fencing was a part of my life, because it allowed me to kind of exist as my true self — as an athlete — without having to change parts of my uniform in order to play. Can you talk about how basketball was freedom for you?
BATOULY: Basketball gave me the ability to rewrite my story. And so once I started playing basketball, I saw women not just, you know, in the house, but they were doing amazing things. They were on the court. They were, you know, entrepreneurs. They were doctors. And this was all in the space of sports. They were so multifaceted in so many ways, and I was intrigued by this. I was intrigued by women showing emotion, women coming together, you know, the sisterhood. And that’s what really drew me to the game — was this sisterhood and just this shared experience of amazing women. And in my background, I grew up with amazing women, and so now to see them in a different light was really, really inspiring and important for me.
IBTIHAJ: So how has faith played a part in kind of fulfilling your parent’s dream for you, you know, growing up in the states? And also, how has sport played a part in that? Because I feel like those things really have created so much opportunity for you.
BATOULY: I am so thankful that my parents just wanted me, above all else, to be a good human. And my father was a doctor, and my mother was an amazing businesswoman, and she still is. But their biggest focus was, “How do we assist the community?” And so growing up, our house was packed. And I would see my father taking individuals to the hospital where he worked — you know, if they just came from Guinea, or any country that they came from — providing them with that medical assistance. And then my mother had a huge boutique, and she would hire everyone. So one day it’d be a hair-braiding salon, then it’d be, like, a barbershop, or whatever that person who came from our country needed. She would financially provide it for them and allow them to be an entrepreneur, and allow them to start their small business right in her boutique, which was huge, and so — it had two stories — and so we grew up in service and grew up in kindness, in that what you want for yourself is what you want for others, and what you give. And so that is what transcended — that is what continued as I started to play sport. My mother never called me to ask me if I had a great game. She asked me, “Are you being a good person? Are you serving your team? Are you able to sleep at night knowing you are kind and you did the best that you could? Did you want for your sisters and your friends what you wanted for yourself? Don’t forget what you grew up on. Don’t forget how you grew up and what’s important to us.” And so those values helped me to be a great teammate and help me to weather storms. And of course, you know, the faith they instilled in me, in knowing who I was and whose I was. And I think that is the highest achievement I think I’ve ever tried to accomplish — is to be who they wanted me to be.
IBTIHAJ: I love that, Batouly. One of my favorite quotes from my favorite athlete of all time, Muhammad Ali: “The service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” And I think that that speaks so eloquently to, like, our faith as Muslims, right? This idea of constantly giving back and wanting to, you know, use the things that you’re passionate about to help others. You took a trip to Guinea to run a basketball camp. How did that trip change your life?
BATOULY: When I went to Guinea in 2017 for the first time, I remember going to the stadium. And as a young girl, I always say my mom never shared, you know, bedtime stories. It was always history lessons. It was fun facts. It was real life things about Guinea and where we were from, even, you know, just growing up in New York City. And so once I got to Guinea, things were pretty clear. All of the stories came back to me. And then I heard from the girls, you know, “What is your experience like here?” And it was the same. It was, “If I don’t continue my education, I’m going to get married and I’m going to start a family.” And those are things that are amazing and are celebrated, but not necessarily for every age group. And the girls said, “We need an alternative. We just need an opportunity to fight for our dreams.” And basketball can take us so far. Basketball can create other, kind of, jobs. It can allow me to be the head of my household. It can allow me to receive an education using sport as a catalyst for change. And so that was that moment in Guinea. Everything — and all the stories that I’ve heard, you know, for the past 21 years — came to life. And then, actually hearing it from the girls and — it made me feel like, you know, this is my duty. And to have those girls say, “Well, now that I’ve seen you, I feel like it’s possible and I’ve seen success in sport,” I felt like it was my responsibility to not just instill hope, but actually access and resources and opportunity, which then led me to start my nonprofit, Women and Kids Empowerment.
IBTIHAJ: So, Women and Kids Empowerment — I love your mission, Batouly. I know how important sport is, especially for women and girls. What are you hoping basketball will do for the youth of Guinea and the different communities that you work with?
BATOULY: I really hope that basketball can create transferable life skills for them that they can use everywhere. And so that was what it was for me. And even in the way that we create our programs — we have our women-empowerment series that works on workshops, or we have our basketball camps that are in Guinea and New York, or global camps where we go in with our resident trainers and have these huge camps that are usually two weeks to a month — our biggest goal is for kids to have a safe space to play, to build community right where they are, because they may not necessarily be connected to everyone around them. And also have resources that they can use to further their game or to just play. Again, I think that’s so, so important. And so that’s a big mission for us, is continuing that. And right now we’re working on infrastructure and creating basketball courts for kids to play, and working on our second basketball court, which should be complete in December. But again, really making sure that kids understand that there are people who love them, who really want them to win and want to provide them with the access, resource and opportunity to be their best selves. And again, the main point — to gain transferable skills that they can use throughout the rest of their life.
IBTIHAJ: I know how important access is when we think about sport. There’s so much privilege in growing up in the states and having the opportunity to go outside and play. And with the sport of basketball, the beautiful thing is, all you need is a ball and a space to play. So your nonprofit — you’ve been creating space in Guinea for kids to play the sport that they love. We’re hoping that there are a lot more Batoulys coming out of Guinea soon.
BATOULY: I think so. I think so. And it’s powerful when you — when you see a girl who’s taller than you [LAUGHS] at a younger age. And she says, “I just need opportunity to fight for my dreams,” and then goes and shows you that every day. And so when you have those stories, it’s hard not to be inspired. It’s hard not to wake up and think of, “OK, what more can we do for them?” So I think there’s a lot more — better Batoulys coming who are just holistic women and are going to be changemakers and blaze a way for the next generation of leaders in Guinea and around the world.
IBTIHAJ: Inshallah. That’s what we’re hoping for. Batouly, we’re both children’s book authors, which I’m sure a lot of people don’t know. Can you tell me a little bit about your children’s book, A Basketball Game on Wake Street?
BATOULY: A Basketball Game on Wake Street is a book I wrote back in 2020. And I started writing it two years ago — I think two years is my mark these days. [LAUGHS] That’s when I kind of know something is for me. And I started writing this book two years ago, and it was a book in my heart because, as a young girl growing up in New York City, you know, you see a lot of different things, but it was when I went to the library, it was when I read Matilda, that I felt like I really traveled and I became a curious person and I wanted to know more. And I felt like the best way was through a book and going on a journey and getting to know people. And I wanted to create that experience. I would go to Guinea and then I’d show my girls pictures of India, or I’d go to France and I show, you know, my — my girls in France, my girls in Guinea or, you know, in New York. And, and I said, “What is the way for them to kind of build a relationship?” And that was through a book. Let me share these experiences. Everybody in A Basketball Game on Wake Street is somebody that I know. And that book brings together a group of diverse girls with unique abilities, together for a basketball game. And again, that was my experience in Spain. Everyone is, you know, different religious backgrounds. Everyone has different abilities. And we’re coming together for a basketball game, and that was really important in that moment. This book is also in French and in Spanish, and we’re working to create more languages, just so that different girls around the world can say, “Wow, there are so many girls who play basketball, and I’m so thankful that I see myself in this book.” And that’s been the best reviews, when young girls say, “I see myself. Thank you for seeing me and sharing me with the world.”
IBTIHAJ: That’s so beautiful. I remember being a kid and not seeing characters that look like me. And so having the opportunity to create that work — which, by the way, two years is not a long time for a children’s book, which I didn’t know until, you know, embarking on that journey myself. But creating that opportunity for our kids to see themselves, but also, it becomes a window for others to see us, as well. Right? Seeing hijabi characters, seeing brown characters on the pages is definitely expanding the minds of many. Eventually, and maybe someday soon, I hope we will no longer have to say that this person was the first to do this, or one of the first to do that. What do you hope changes as a result of the barriers that are being broken now?
BATOULY: I think you said it perfectly: that there is no more first. That there is just the next and the greatest and the best, but no more first. And that makes me excited, because young people and changemakers want to take up space and they want to be in every space, and have different interests, and are so unique and are so dynamic. And that makes me really, really excited for the future. But I think you said it perfectly — that there are no more firsts. Just the next, just the best.
IBTIHAJ: We have to acknowledge, you know, why firsts even happen, because there are barriers that were intentionally put in place, you know, to prohibit people who look like us from not only playing in sport but from existing. So dismantling, you know, those, those different rules and policies that are in place that affect underserved, underprivileged communities, communities of color — really important. Which is why the work that you’re doing, your presence, creating space for people who look like us to exist and thrive and to believe that their dreams are possible is so important. Batouly, thank you so much for the work that you are doing, for the work you will continue to do, not just on the court, but more importantly, off the court. You are just a beautiful person who is really creating change, meaningful change, in our global community.
BATOULY: Thank you so much. That means more than you know to hear. And I thank you for being one of my first role models and someone who continues to inspire me every day and pushes me to do more and to use my platform in intentional ways. So thank you so much for everything that you do and everything that you are.
IBTIHAJ: Shukran, Batouly, appreciate you.
BATOULY: No — afwan, I appreciate you. Thank you so much.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. This episode was produced by Karen Given with help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app, and please leave us a review. To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas, or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation.
Next week on the podcast: When South Africa was chosen to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, it signaled the country’s return to the international sports stage after the end of apartheid. But for the country’s new leader, Nelson Mandela, the tournament was something more. It was a chance to help his young nation avoid catastrophe.
Mandela was very much aware of the need to try and solidify the foundations of the new South African democracy and avoid a civil war.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next time, on The Long Game.