MILWAUKEE — It’s not unusual for first-time opponents to underestimate the lady Salam Stars.
The girls can see it — in an opponent’s glance, maybe the way she drops her shoulders — when the Stars take the court looking demure in their traditional Muslim headscarves.
Then, without fail, Captain Safiya Schaub or one of her teammates will hustle for the basket, quickly post up and nail the layup.
“It’s so cool every time that happens,” said lady Stars Coach Kassidi Macak, in her third year coaching what may be the state’s only all-Muslim girls varsity basketball team at Salam School on Milwaukee’s south side. “A lot of people think Muslim girls don’t know how to play.”
At 6-1, their best start ever, the Salam Stars are proving they most certainly do.
The Stars blew the St. Francis Mariners out of the water, 69-38, last week in a much-anticipated match against Macak’s alma mater, a team known for its rapid-fire style of play. The Stars dominated the first half, 31-8, and the Mariners never had a chance, falling for the first time in the years-long rivalry between the teams.
The Stars were led by senior guard Heba Badwan, who scored a career-high 22 points and had 13 steals, a new record for the team. Her cousin, junior forward Jumana Badwan, followed with 16 points.
Muslim women defying barriers
Around the world, Muslim women are defying cultural barriers and stereotypes to compete and excel at the highest levels of sports — in football, fencing, weightlifting, basketball, ice hockey and more.
In 2016, 14 Muslim women medaled in the Rio Olympics, including American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who earned a bronze medal, the first Muslim woman to represent the United States on the podium. And in recent years, a number of sports governing bodies have lifted their bans on the hijab, or headscarf, including the international football and basketball associations — eliminating a barrier that forced many women to choose between their sports and their faith.
Salam, meaning “Peace” in Arabic, is an Islamic school that draws students and families from around the globe to its campus at South 13th Street and West Layton Avenue in Milwaukee. The school has been expanding its athletic opportunities for girls over the last decade and now fields teams in soccer, volleyball, track and cross country, in addition to basketball.
Not all of the lady Stars wear the hijab outside school — it is a choice — but it’s part of the uniform at Salam, in classes as well as athletics. And the school has had a waiver from the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association for years for girls to compete in the headscarf, sweats and long-sleeved tees.
‘Representing a whole group of people’
The girls are careful about how they respond, on and off the court, because they know some people will judge all Muslims by their actions.
“You have to be extra cautious because you feel like you’re representing a whole group of people,” Schaub said.
Midhat Farrah, who played on the first Salam boys basketball team in 2003 and now coaches the seventh-grade boys, sees them as “spreading peace through basketball.”
“They’re behaving in an Islamic way and showing people that Islam is a peaceful religion.”
Macak, who is not Muslim, said their poise in those situations has taught her so much about patience and that working with the girls has expanded her worldview.
“And it’s not just me. It’s my family, my friends, my boyfriend,” many of whom turn out regularly for the games, she said. “It’s no different than coaching any other teenager. The only difference is what they wear on the court and what they have to deal with.”