Fatemeh Mortazavi and Rojin Talakoub are busy soaking in the frenetic atmosphere inside the Sree Kanteerava Indoor Stadium when they get ‘the call’ from coach Elahe Darestani. The players with ‘the best English knowledge’ have been acting as translators for the Iranian women’s team, who are making a historic appearance at the FIBA U-16 Women’s Asian Championship here.
Questions on their return to international competition after 38 years, women’s basketball in Iran and playing with the hijab (headscarf for Muslim women) have now become routine for the duo. But a query on their favourite NBA player had the girls and their coach in gleeful fits of laughter.
“LeBron James, of course,” quips Rojin, drowning out her coach’s meek vote for Stephen Curry. “Why? Because he encourages women in hijab to come out and play. He fights for us,” said the point guard, who then pushed up her sleeve slightly to proudly show off a wristband of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar.
LeBron had in January voiced his support for Massachusetts player Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, whose dream of a professional basketball career had been crushed due to FIBA’s ban on headgear in international competitions.
The world basketball body’s rule prohibited any headgear wider than five inches, which caused a serious dent on the ambitions of hijab-wearing players world over. But earlier this year, FIBA’s representatives watched an exhibition game of basketball in Tehran featuring women wearing hijabs to assess the practicality and safety of playing with headgear.
The event was historic – it was the first time, since the 1979 Revolution, that men witnessed a women’s sport in person in Iran and the game also played a big role in FIBA’s decision to overturn the long-standing ban on hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes. The ban was officially lifted on October 1 and the U-16 Championship is the first official FIBA tournament to witness the beginning of a new era.
Back in international spotlight after nearly four decades, the Iranian team – dressed in full-body red uniforms under their loose-fitting national jerseys – are hoping to make the best of it. “It was our dream to play international basketball. We are so happy we are here now,” Darestani said. “We can now wear the hijab on court; we can play in front of men.”