Sisterhood Of Fun And Faith

May 4, 2008

Author: Julie York Coppens

Source: The Charlotte Observer

This is a story about Muslim women.

It's a completely happy story.

Except for when they lost the big game.

"All right, let's play," says Hebah Sadek, coach of the Carolina Cyclones, at the start of a recent Wednesday night practice at the Islamic Society of Greater Charlotte. That weekend, the Cyclones - 10 young women of shared faith, but not much athletic experience - would pile into a van bound for Tampa, Fla., to play in a national youth tournament sponsored by the Muslim American Society.

So tonight is crunch time. Sadek and her fellow players are focused, even intense, but always considerate.

"My bad - sorry," mutters Sophie Brelvi, when a bounce pass misses its target wide.

"Nice," she says a moment later, when teammate Sadek retrieves the stray ball, fakes left, drives around a defender and lays it up for an easy two. They exchange a soft high-five.

And there's some joking, as when Ruhi Brelvi, Sophie's older sister, acknowledges the presence of a newspaper photographer just out of bounds: "OK, you guys, there will be no shirt-lifting tonight."

In line with their religious observance, the Cyclones play in hijab, the head-covering traditionally worn by Muslim girls who've reached adolescence. Their practice togs: long-sleeve T-shirts over track pants or sweats. Never shorts. Their homemade uniform jerseys for the tournament are similarly modest.

Their drills are accompanied at regular intervals by an imam's voice over the gym's loudspeaker, chanting brief, melodic prayers in Arabic. But no men are present; again, in accordance with certain tenets of Islam, even teammates' male relatives are unwelcome while the Cyclones do their thing on the court. (The tournament in Tampa was held in gyms segregated by gender.)

Otherwise, as the ladies' workout stretches into the night, this recreational team looks and sounds and sweats like any other.

"There's a whirlpool in the hotel," Ruhi Brelvi says during a breather, as talk turns to the upcoming trip. The girls raised the tournament money themselves. They recruited a uniform sponsor: Halal International, a grocery store owned by the father of teammates Kawthar and Sumaya Suleiman. They put together a detailed travel itinerary, with help from the Internet, and stocked up on snacks for the road.

"Tell me what kind of cereal you like for the mornings," says Hebah, who's in charge of the food fund.

"Cap'n Crunch," Suzanne Hamid answers immediately. The others laugh.

`A better outlook on life'

At 21, Hebah Sadek is the team's eldest member; her sister, 16-year-old Hala, is the youngest. The women live all over the Charlotte area, attend different mosques, represent a range of ethnic backgrounds - Indian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian, African American, even part-Colombian - and collectively speak a half-dozen languages and dialects, in addition to English. Most became friends years ago in Sunday school, at the Islamic Society. Some joined a Girl Scout troop established by Hamid's mother, Rose.

So this is a sorority of long standing, between young women who sometimes feel, as members of an often self-segregated (and largely gender-segregated) Muslim American culture, like a minority within a minority. Over the past year and half or so that they've been playing basketball, they say, the sport has made their friendship stronger.

See also: Islam, Women, Youth