Basketball pro’s next move: Unifying women and girls through sports

Indira Kaljo

Indira Kaljo

When she decided to take the next step in her spiritual journey by donning the Islamic hijab full-time, Indira Kaljo was unknowingly taking the first step on a road that would bring her to the center of the Muslim world.

Kaljo, 27, was raised Muslim in a Bosnian-American family in California. A star basketball player in high school, the 5-foot-10 guard finished her college career at Tulane University averaging 5.8 points per game as a shooting specialist off the bench. After graduation, she spent two years as an assistant coach at Ventura (Calif.) College, but eventually missed the game too much and took her shot at playing professionally. Kaljo played one season of pro ball in Ireland, then signed with Bosnian League powerhouse Zeljeznicar Sarajevo for the 2013-14 season.

Returning to the country where she spent the first six years of her life, where reportedly just under half of the population is Muslim, Kaljo developed a stronger connection to her religion. Toward the end of the season, Kaljo decided to join millions of Muslim women around the world by covering for the sake of modesty.

There was one problem with that: FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, has a rule that prohibits players from wearing any “headgear” on the court other than a headband. That means in any FIBA-sanctioned game — from the Olympics to the World Cup to the majority of the planet’s professional leagues — a team with any player in violation of Article 4.4.2 could be forced to forfeit. So that means any Jewish man with a yarmulke, Sikh man with a turban, or Muslim woman with a hijab headscarf is a risky acquisition. It also means national teams from Muslim, Sikh and/or Jewish-majority countries face serious hurdles and cultural dilemmas if they want to compete with the rest of the world.

While FIBA’s controversial and discriminatory rule is currently under review, it could be years before it’s up for a dismissal or major modification.

For Kaljo, whose commitment to wearing hijab everywhere she goes includes the basketball court, the lack of teams willing or able to sign her puts her playing career on hold again. And so, this past summer, she accepted a job as a physical education teacher in Saudi Arabia.

Now living and working close to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, Kaljo is turning another of her longtime dreams into reality. She has recently launched Global Aktivne, a nonprofit organization that uses sports and fitness to bring Muslim and non-Muslim women together across communities. Here, she talks about the program and its progress:

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UMMAH SPORTS: Having lived most of your life in the United States, what is it like now living in a Muslim-majority country?

INDIRA KALJO: It has been absolutely amazing! I love being around fellow Muslims, walking around knowing we are all aiming for Jannah, seeking Allah’s forgiveness. The unity you feel is wonderful. I also enjoy not having to ask whether or not my dish has pork in it. It’s a small thing, but huge for me. Furthermore, I love going to Mecca and Medina where our Prophet (peace be upon him) walked and spread Islam, Alhamdulillah. It is a peaceful, unifying feeling. Truly priceless.

US: The last time we spoke, you were still pretty new to wearing hijab full-time. Talk about what your experience wearing hijab has been like since then, and how living in Saudi Arabia impacts that experience.

IK: It’s been natural and easy, Alhamdulillah. I wore it for four months in the States before moving to KSA and I loved wearing it from the moment I made my decision. I was ready for it and I truly didn’t experience negative backlash other than the occasional stares. Now living in KSA, it’s beautiful to see fellow Muslim women wearing hijab daily and knowing that we are on the same journey. The best part about it is that here you are never questioned why you’re wearing the hijab — everyone knows the importance of it. It would be amazing to bring more awareness and understanding to the beauty of the hijab to America.

US: How do you like teaching?

IK: I am thoroughly enjoying it. My students are amazing and I have learned a lot from them. It is a pleasure teaching them how important health is and also teaching them various sports.

US: Do you still see yourself as a basketball player, or is that chapter of your life coming to a close?

IK: I play for (club team) Jeddah United here in KSA. They are building their program and have high hopes for the future of Saudi Arabia having a national team and professional league. It will definitely take some time but I am confident it will happen, inshaAllah. I am currently exploring professional opportunities for next season. I definitely want to play again, inshaAllah.

The women of Global Aktivne

The women of Global Aktivne

US: What is Global Aktivne?

IK: Global Aktivne is an organization which seeks to empower and engage all girls and women through sport, development and peace. Our aim is to bridge the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim communities worldwide by providing and facilitating learning through sport, play and various peaceful activities, inshaAllah.

Global Aktivne’s mission is to provide the tools, resources, and knowledge to engage in an active lifestyle for girls and women globally. We want to bring girls and women of all ethnicities, backgrounds and faiths together by the means of peaceful, enjoyable, and engaged participation in various activities; sport, play, camps, clinics, conferences and more, inshaAllah.

US: How did the idea to start Global Aktivne come about?

IK: The idea of empowering girls and giving them an outlet through sports has been in my mind for years. When I graduated college in 2010 was when I really started thinking about it. I knew that I would start a nonprofit at some point, I just didn’t know exactly when. Since the whole (FIBA) ban with the hijab, moving to KSA and teaching my students, I saw that women need an organization that empowers them and shows Muslimahs in a positive light doing and being active, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

US: When did it go from just an idea to a real, tangible organization?

IK: The organization was launched in January 2015. It is in its growing stages. We have two staff and three board members. In February we introduced our eight youth board members. We are currently seeking volunteers to get involved with the organization and our social media is growing by the day. We are working on spreading the word about Global Aktivne in a quick and positive way.

US: What’s the story behind the name, Global Aktivne?

IK: In Bosnian, the word aktivne means “active women.” When deciding on the name I wanted to have something to represent Bosnia since I am from there. I wanted it to be unique and inshaAllah people like the name.

US: What is your average day-to-day schedule with Global Aktivne?

IK: Every day my board and I work on Global Aktivne, however this is not a full-time thing as of yet. InshaAllah we are working on different ideas, the logistics, spreading the news on media and keeping our followers engaged. We are currently planning our first clinic that will be held in Jeddah in April 2015, inshaAllah.

US: Why is Global Aktivne needed?

IK: It is needed because more organizations are needed which aim to unify women through sport, and empower them. In Middle Eastern countries we see a lack of places for women to be active outside the home and the culture tends to shun this. We hope through this positive effort, we can start to change this perspective, inshaAllah.

US: Are you targeting your efforts toward the Middle East, toward the West, or worldwide?

IK: We are targeting worldwide, however right now we are working in the Middle East. I would like to unite Muslimahs and non-Muslimahs worldwide through activity and sport. It would be lovely to use social media and events in different countries to unite women across the board. We are strong, we are empowered, we have many ideas and through an organization like this, together we can positively effect each other and make the world a better place for all of us women, inshaAllah.

US: What are some of the challenges that come with starting an organization like this?

IK: Definitely making sure all policies are met in different countries and slowly meeting the right organizations that will support our mission and aim, inshaAllah. You never know if people will be receptive to your idea, but when the intention is for the sake of Allah and His pleasure then inshaAllah the challenges will turn into positive outcomes.

US: What kind of feedback have you received?

IK: The feedback we have received has been positive, alhamdulillah. Women are leaving comments about how great this idea is and how we need an organization like this. I haven’t read any negative comments yet, however we know that whenever you do something of this sort it opens a door for negative feedback. InshaAllah if we receive it in the future, we will address it and work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future.

US: What do you envision for the future of Global Aktivne?

IK: We would like to reach many girls and women around the world. Our goal is to grow into an organization that is functioning in a few countries and putting on various conferences, workshops, camps, events, and more so that girls and women can be active. We want to use this organization to spread dawah around the world through positive action, inshaAllah.

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Follow Global Aktivne on Twitter: @GlobalAktivne
Watch Global Aktivne on YouTube: Global Aktivne’s YouTube Channel

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