How Merve Şapçı Campaigned for Hijabs in Basketball and Won

The Turkish athlete was instrumental in lifting the country's hijab ban in basketball. Here's how she did it.

via Tesettür Giyim

It’s no secret that Turkey’s maintained its position in the media over the few years thanks to a President who increasingly clamps down on democracy and attempts to push a more religious and conservative agenda that does questionable good for women. But despite Erdoğan’s increasingly suffocating grip and even during it, female athletes in Turkey have continued to thrive. In 2012, more Turkish women than men represented the country in the London Olympics—and since then, Turkish women have been consistently winning world championships and European titles. The country boasts a strong culture of women’s volleyball, football and basketball, which brings us to Merve Şapçı a.k.a. Turkey’s first licensed headscarf-wearing basketball player.

Şapçı got into basketball at quite a young age. “I was in year 4 when my gym teacher recognised my talent in basketball and sports in general,” she recalls. “Thanks to my teacher whom I looked up to, I wanted to become a P.E. teacher too.” As Merve started to spend most of her time on the basketball courts, it didn’t take her too long before she become a part of the Turkish Basketball League where she played professional basketball from 2002 to 2009. However, the biggest change in her life came when she went to America to complete her Masters.

During this time, she became immensely inquisitive about her religion. As she went back to her homeland, Turkey, she started wanting to wear a hijab, but was concerned about how this might impact her life—especially when it comes to basketball. Back then, the Turkish Basketball Federation banned female players from wearing headscarves during their games.

The Nike Pro Hijab, launched earlier this year.

As a result, one of Şapçı’s greatest concerns was that because of her hijab, she might have to give up basketball.“When I first started wearing modest clothing I was only coaching since clubs did not accept me,” says Space. “Then I discovered that there were other modest basketball players, and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to continue too’. It never even crossed my mind to remove my headscarf to play basketball.”

In 2016, an online petition to lift the headscarf ban in basketball was launched. Şapçı was a prominent supporter of lifting the ban: she directly addressed the President of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) and pressured him to change the rules by joining hands with other international hijabi basketball athletes through the campaign. All in all, the petition gathered over 130, 000 signatures— and the Turkish Basketball Federation (TBF) lifted the regulation preventing female players from wearing the headscarf in 2016.

Shortly after, Şapçı transformed into a coach and started up her own academy that is dedicated to training hijabi athletes. According to Şapçı, she started the academy to help other girls like herself—women who could potentially be hindered from pursuing basketball due to fear of stigma based around their hijabs. Because the stigma is still alive and well, even though massive brands like Nike are now making sport-specific hijabs: up until 2017, FIBA did not allow women in hijab to compete in professional basketball matches.

But a few months ago, FIBA announced that basketball players would be allowed to wear religious headgear in professional games. In tandem with that change, Şapçı encourages all other hijabi women who are afraid to take up sports to realise that their hijab is not an obstacle (especially if you put on a sports hijab known as “capster.”) “No matter what’s your language, religion or nationality, nothing should prevent you from doing sport or doing what you truly love,” she says. “Never give up on your dreams and pursue what you believe will make you happy; that’s what I did. Which is why I feel the strength of women should not go amiss. ”