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Sikh basketball players gain congressional support to lift ban on turbans

US congressmen launch campaign against rule that bars Sikh players from wearing turbans in international competitions

Two U.S. congressmen launched a campaign urging the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to reconsider its policy after two Sikh players were asked to remove their turbans during an international basketball game last month.

In a letter sent on Tuesday to FIBA President Yvan Mainini, Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., called the policy "discriminatory" and said the turban "is essential to their faith."

The move comes after India's Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh were asked to remove their turbans at the July FIBA Asia Cup tournament in Wuhan, China. Sikhs keep their hair in a natural, uncut state under their turbans.

Referees said the players were violating Article 4.4.2 of FIBA’s official rules: “Players shall not wear equipment [objects] that may cause injury to other players.”

Both players removed their turbans, tied back their hair with headbands and returned to play. The Indian team lost to Japan by 23 points.

Fans responded to the turban ruling on social media, with the hashtag #LetSikhsPlay tweeted thousands of times. The congressmen echoed many of those sentiments in their letter to FIBA.

"We are concerned about recent reports indicating that Sikhs are not able to participate in International Basketball Federation [FIBA] games while wearing a turban, which is essential to their faith, and ask you to change this discriminatory policy," the letter said. "Basketball is a beloved team sport that has the ability to bring people of all backgrounds together, regardless of history, culture, language, and religion."

The letter added, "There is no evidence showing that a turban has been dangerous during basketball games," and pointed out that the world’s governing body for soccer, FIFA, permits athletes to wear turbans on the field.

Crowley and Bera said they have the backing of two dozen other members of Congress. The lawmakers hope the Switzerland-based FIBA will change the policy when its board meets at the end of August.

FIBA’s ban on headgear has also prevented some Muslim players from entering international competitions.

Bilqis Abdul-Qadeer, who wears a hijab head covering, was barred from competing overseas because the organization had stated that headscarves violated their dress code and possibly interfered with players' ability to play safely.

The Council on American-Islamic relations (CAIR) has made repeated requests to FIBA to change its rule.

"No athlete should be forced to choose between faith and sport. Muslim women seek[ing] to participate in sporting activities should not face artificial and arbitrary barriers to that participation," CAIR said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Crowley, along with New Jersey Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, also appealed to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel urging the Pentagon to allow Sikh Americans who serve in the U.S. military to be permitted to wear a turban or beard.

In January, the Pentagon gave in to repeated calls from the Sikh community to loosen restrictions that prevented many from enlisting, but advocates said the changes did not go far enough. Under the new policy, the U.S. military accommodates religious requests of service members, but the evaluation factors are open to interpretation and reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

The factors include the "safe and effective" operation of weapons, missions and protective gear, such as gas masks and helmets – conditions which critics say place the well-being of the Sikh community in the outcome of ad-hoc decisions.

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