Leader. Professional basketball player. Inspirer. Motivational speaker. President of Global Aktivne. Humble and admirable human being. These are merely some of the many influential and resilient titles Indira Kaljo holds.
This Bosnian-American Muslim who played college basketball for Tulane University, began challenging FIBA’s ban on religious headwear after she was not allowed to play professionally in Europe due to her hijab. She knew that she was a great athlete, but the hijab and her faith became a factor in the athletic world. Rather than holding back and quitting she began fighting towards the right to play no matter what.
Along with working on campaigns for FIBA to allow the hijab, she has started an organization known as Global Aktivne and she is constantly striving to make it easier for other individuals that may face the same challenges as an athlete. Not only this, but she is working on other projects that promote spiritual and physical wellbeing, while actively being an important voice for the Muslim community.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Kaljo – and here are her thoughts.
What is your background: origin, education and what made you so passionate about sports — specifically, basketball?
I’m originally from Bosnia and moved to California when I was 6 years old.
I started playing sports at the age of 7. I have played various sports including: swimming, softball, volleyball, and cross-country with basketball being my favorite of course. I just fell in love with it since I touched the ball.
I received a scholarship to play at Tulane University where I finished my Bachelors in science and a minor in public health. Upon completion I finished my Masters in Science with an emphasis on Physical education.
I played two years of basketball abroad, one in Ireland and one in my home country Bosnia. I love basketball so much because it was the only sport that truly kept me happy. The team component and working together to achieve the same goal while still being competitive individually was absolutely my favorite part.
How would you describe being a Muslim in this sport? Has it ever been an interfering factor or a hurdle that you had to overcome as time went on?
I’d say being Muslim hasn’t been a problem growing up in the States. My teammates respected by beliefs and didn’t ever make me feel like I didn’t fit in because of it. My coach at Tulane made us start doing silent prayers instead of collective prayers out of respect to my faith. I thought that was really thoughtful and truly inclusive with all her players.
However it was when I started to wear hijab that all of a sudden my faith mattered. I automatically was different and I was not allowed to play. But for me — I was the same baller, same ability to shoot, score and play with my team. It didn’t make sense that I couldn’t play anymore because of a difference in the way I dress. If it didn’t hurt someone else or me — what is the issue? Due to FIBA ban on hijab and even after FIBA gave a 2-year provisional period I couldn’t play in Europe. Majority of basketball federations do not allow hijab, even if they do not have any written rules against it. I’ve come to find out its more of a political thing and it’s a verbal agreement to not allow hijab in the leagues. Two leagues I’m currently dealing with to finally allow the hijab is Turkey and my home country Bosnia.
There are various leagues which are currently allowing the hijab and the players are doing great. Naming a few are: Indonesia, Qatar, Egypt, and recently Sweden.
The thing that has helped me get through these times is honestly just prayer. I put my head down in sujood and just talk to Allah. I ask My Lord to get me through the times that people tell me I can’t do, something because of my hijab or women collectively can’t. My firm belief is we can. The more and more I am patient, the more coaches and people support this idea. The best part has been connecting with women who wear hijab globally and hearing their stories of having to struggles with the hijab. It’s made this whole process a whole lot easier and the biggest hurdle I’ve overcome is being ok with whatever happens. My constant saying is Alhamdulillah for everything, the good and the bad.
Did this struggle motivate you or pave the way for Global Aktivne? You are the founder and president of this wonderful organization — how did you come up with the idea to start it?
Yes! Absolutely. My personal struggle and the connection I made with many other hijabis paved the way for GA. For many years I have wanted to start my own NGO. I felt I wasn’t ready and knew I had to grow in many aspects to start a successful and meaningful NGO. Through my personal experiences and witnessing continuously that women are not given the same opportunities in life – worldwide — the vision for Global Aktivne came to life. I truly wanted to give girls and women a safe place, an organization that supports their dreams, visions and goals and that actually gives them the opportunity to live out those dreams. We are still a very new organization and our team and members are growing individually and group wise. It’s been beautiful to see how many girls and women have become more confident in sharing their ideas for projects and how we can execute them. It’s been so humbling to see our projects come to life and help people, involve them in activities and to see the smiles of enjoyment. I wholeheartedly believe in Aktivne and in our vision to engage, make a positive change; one girl, woman, and project at a time, In Sha Allah.
There are specific programs in GA that seem to challenge or want girls and women to be confident in whichever talent they choose. Can you explain some of these programs? How did you creatively come up with the idea to incorporate various contents into GA and how would you say they help each individual differently?
When we sat down and started talking about all elements of the organization the main idea was to be able to invite all girls and women of various interests and passions to our projects.
We truly wanted to focus on giving an opportunity for every woman to participate. Our aim is to engage each woman regardless of ethnicity, religion and socioeconomic class while emphasizing on Muslim ladies to become more involved globally. All of our projects have been completely free and many individuals have mentioned how important this is as it offers all individuals the chance to join. In Sha Allah our goal is to be able to continue all free projects. We solely depend on donations and grants. May Allah make our vision successful.
We came up with the name heART because we realize women use their hearts for the passion of art. We have held poetry, and photography workshops and we hope to do open mic nights, calligraphy, pottery making, and etc. workshops.
The helping hands program was created in memory of my mom. She wanted to start a nonprofit organization called helping hands before she passed away. May Allah give her Jannah. This program seeks to give helping hands in various ways. We have done projects for Ramadan, Eid, and hygienic supplies for homeless people in California, a prosthetic hand for a Syrian boy who lost his lower arm in a blast, and winter supplies for Syrian refugees. Alhamdulillah
Our health and wellness programs and sport academy looks to engage the women physically, mentally, and spiritually. We have done a stress management workshop, nutritional blog, and various tournaments in basketball, volleyball and soccer.
Our latest projects are: to build a basketball court in Haiti for 500 unprivileged children, to finish building a mosque in Haiti and buying a farm for the Muslims in the community, and to send a huge container for Syrian and Palestinian refugees this winter, In Sha Allah. We are raising funds for all these projects and more info can we found on our website.
You mentioned that you are working on a campaign for FIBA to allow the hijab. Can you tell us a bit more about that campaign?
In June we will launch a second campaign for FIBA asking them to allow hijab on all levels, amateur & professional and national, international, and Olympic level. I will be making a promotional video asking people to join our change.org petition globally. Also, I have met hijab players from UK, Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, Sweden and they will all share their story on change.org. We will launch it the first week of June in Sha Allah.
What advice would you give young Muslim girls and women that are trying to pursue a career in the athletic world?
I want to tell all girls and women to follow their dreams and passions. Even if it’s just playing by yourself, or fighting to join a team — don’t quit. Even if there are struggles along the way…It will be well worth it in the end. In Sha Allah.
This article is written by Mahwesh Fatima