Remona Aly
Friday 15 March 2024 The Guardian

Diaba Konaté loves France. But a hijab ruling stops her playing there

Diaba Konaté loves France. But a hijab ruling stops her playing there

The energy radiating from Diaba Konaté is palpable, even over our transatlantic Zoom chat. The wide-smiling college star has dreamed of playing basketball in the States ever since she was a young girl. She moved to the US from France in December 2018 on a full scholarship from Idaho State University, later transferring as a junior to the University of California, Irvine.

The 23-year-old point guard’s collegiate highlights include averaging 8.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.2 steals per game as a junior, ranking among the top-30 in the nation with her free-throw percentage, and tying eighth in single-season school history with 63 steals. She also reached 1,000 points in her collegiate career after dropping a season-high 20 against UC Santa Barbara in February 2023.

Diaba’s journey began aged 11 when a teacher recognised her potential at school in Paris, and she soon joined the French youth team set-up, going on to win medals with the under-18 and under-23 teams. “France taught me basketball,” she tells me, her French accent delicately skimming her fluent English. You can sense deep affection and pride when she speaks of home, but there’s one major glitch – she is banned from playing in her own country simply because she wears a hijab.

The French Federation of Basketball (FFBB) prohibits the wearing of “any equipment with a religious or political connotation”, which discriminates against Muslim women in headgear. Secularism in France, or ‘laïcité’, has restricted those wearing religious attire from entering many official public institutions, including the sporting arena, in a continual drive to separate religion and state. With the Paris Games starting in July, the FFBB’s ruling has drawn fire from around the world, with critics saying that it goes against the spirit of the Olympics, and sports in general.

Diaba says she is “heartbroken” at the ban in France, which prevents her from playing in public arenas in her hijab. “It’s like a two people relationship. I want to step towards them, but they’re backing up. I love my home country, but I feel like America loves me more.”

Apart from the obstacles in France, the sociology major has had a pretty smooth basketball journey enjoying nothing but support from coaches, teammates and her family.

She was born and raised in Paris to working-class parents – her father is a cleaner, her mother worked in a restaurant – who left Mali to build a better life for their nine children. Diaba is the only baller among her siblings.

Diaba’s confidence on court coincided with a boost in faith which came after a period of profound introspection during the Covid pandemic. The 2020 lockdown left her “truly alone” and compelled her to stop and reevaluate her life. “It was a time to question myself. What do I want my identity to be? Do I really want to play basketball? How good of a Muslim am I?” Through tears and soul-searching, Diaba “turned to Allah” and found answers. Her faith deepened, as did her conviction and discipline in her game, with an initial daily routine of “waking up for the fajr [dawn] prayer and then shooting hoops.” She has also been known to curse on the court when frustrated at times. “We’re not angels!” she laughs.

In 2020, Diaba also began wearing the hijab. She adjusted her uniform accordingly, adding leggings and long sleeved tops beneath. Her teammates and coaches were completely supportive, the latter even bought her sports hijabs.

Diaba constantly sought to improve her game, and closely observed the techniques of American basketball greats, taking inspiration wherever she could find it. She cites former WNBA legend Sue Bird and the Dallas Mavericks’ Kyrie Irving in particular.

But her real inspiration on and off the court is Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, whose struggles and determination deeply impress Diaba. Bilqis made NCAA history by being the first hijab-wearing player in collegiate basketball. But in 2013, she had to sacrifice playing professionally in Europe owing to a Fiba ban on headgear. She tirelessly fought the ban, which was eventually overturned in 2017.

“Sport is a human right,” says Bilqis, now a speaker and CEO of Muslim Girls Ball Too, which she set up to encourage Muslim women to enter sports. “Playing ball and wearing hijab – who are we hurting? We should have a space to do what we love, and not have to choose between our passion and our faith ever.”

Bilqis speaks of carrying a “trifecta of identity” as a Muslim, Black woman. “I fill so many gaps, and it’s so powerful that people aren’t ready for it. But that is where we make change, we can make history,” she says.

Diaba recognises the power as well as the challenges faced within such a trifecta which she herself represents, and while she has been reluctantly pushed towards campaigning rather than solely focusing on playing basketball, she agrees that you have to do uncomfortable things for change to happen.

Diaba is bolstered by solidarity from other athletes and bodies like Amnesty International and Basket Pour Toutes (Basketball for All), formed by Muslim female players, coaches, and allies, fighting the FFBB ban. Together they issued an open letter on this year’s International Women’s Day, with 80-plus signatories, demanding equal access for players like Diaba. “Sport should be a place where you grow – not where you face bigotry,” states their co-founder, Hélène Bâ, also a hijab-wearing basketball player.

Also from Basket Pour Toutes is Haifa Tlili, a sociology researcher who has been critical in guiding the campaign from the start. “You can’t claim to be fighting violence against women while humiliating, stigmatizing, and excluding some sportswomen; you can’t congratulate yourself on the feminization of sport in France, while leaving some women on the sidelines or sending them to the stands,” she says.

Another key advocate is Athlete Ally, a LGBTQI+ organization seeking to raise voices like Diaba’s. “Collective liberation is only possible through intentional allyship,” says the organisation’s director of communications, Joanna Hoffman. She highlights how important it is to move beyond “comfort levels to actively confront oppression that does not affect us directly. Muslim women and girls, like all women and girls, deserve to play sports as their full selves. We should never be excluded from sport simply because of who we are.”

More broadly, in recent years women’s basketball has gained momentum and attention, aided by players like Caitlin Clark, who this season became the top-scoring player in NCAA basketball history and raised the profile for female ballers. While there is progress, more still needs to be done for women’s basketball: more media coverage, more resources, and more investment, according to Diaba. Only then will there be a greater chance of inclusion and equality for all women in sports, including Muslim women.

Diaba’s focus is now on getting to the NCAA Tournament, the culmination of the college basketball season. Her team’s fate will be decided at the Big West Championship, which takes place this weekend. “My team is amazing,” she says. “We are really motivated and determined to go. But if we don’t get to be champions, I think we have a big chance to go dance at March Madness.”

The end of season tournament is happening during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, and Diaba intends to fast during games. “I want to devote and challenge myself, both in my faith and in my basketball,” she says.

She will be playing on a torn meniscus, which she has carried for three years, making her a more careful player, but she plans to have surgery after the tournament.

Her future hopes?“I hope the French ban gets lifted. I want to play basketball in front of my family. I want to play for France. And I want to fight for other women like me to have access to sports.”

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 15 March 2024. To view it click here. 

Diaba Konaté loves France. But a hijab ruling stops her playing there