Conversations with ASMA ELBADAWI
Basketballer. Coach. Poet. Activist. Asma Elbadawi wears many hats, but all the roles have one thing in common — her passion for feminism and female empowerment. We spoke to the Sudanese-British athlete about how she constantly challenges the rules and champions movement, from fashion to activism.
“It doesn’t need to be complicated. It just requires you to move forward. I choose movement. What do you choose?” — Asma Elbadawi
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You were born in Sudan, raised in England and are currently based in the Netherlands. How did the different countries shape who you are?
I’ve always lived in a space where there were only a few other people who looked like me and were from my country. I’m used to meeting people from so many different cultures and backgrounds and I’ve always changed my accent so that they would understand me. But when I was 11, I went back to Sudan and I realised that I could just be who I am — the same way I’m at home with my mum, dad and brother and speaking like that.
It was the first time I was somewhere where people knew my culture, my religion, and my background. They understand our traditions and even our language. Sudanese Arabic is sometimes perceived as not as trendy as the rest because our dialect is different from the others. It’s almost like the reggae version – we’re chill yet expressive, but people used to always laugh at that or pretended that they don’t understand.
In the UK, it was more structured. I got my education there, I started my career there and it was also where I was able to play sports – I started to play on the streets with kids from so many different backgrounds. Now that I’m here in the Netherlands, this is the first time I moved somewhere by myself, as Asma Elbadawi, as an artist, and as a creative. My whole life has mostly revolved around sports, so this is the first time – after I finished university – that I could have my own studio and work on things that I wanted to do. That was really liberating for me, Also the fact that now, being alone, I had to find friends and create a routine to do things that I normally did with other people. So now I feel much more independent, and I also feel less scared to move again.
Your move in petitioning and succeeding in convincing the FIBA to remove their ban on hijabs in professional basketball is truly admirable, to say the least. How was that process for you?
I utilised the power of social media and spoke to journalists and the media to push for more people to sign. I don’t think it would’ve reached the level that I achieved if people didn’t believe in us wanting to play sports. So the support of the cause was a huge, huge part of it.
Like it or not, issues of discrimination against hijabis are still rampant in an array of industries, including the workplace. What are your thoughts on that?
My lifestyle is completely different to a lot of people's. Because I created my own space to work in, I’m not really familiar with how it is in a workplace, for example. But I know in certain countries like France, it’s extremely difficult for women to wear the hijab and there are so many rules in place. They just don’t want them to show that they’re Muslim in any kind of way. They’re basically insinuating that the choice to cover your hair is wrong and everyone should be able to see all of you. That’s the same with the niqab as well – the face covering – people get upset because they say we can’t see your face. There are things that we want to keep private. Even a lot of times when I work, people want Asma the poet, the basketball player, the one at home, all these different things at once, but what if I only want to show one side? What if I don’t want you to have everything? That’s the conversation and people are not comfortable with that. A huge part of it is that they feel like we owe them the right to see our bodies.
You are a poet, a basketball player, and a photographer. How is your approach to creativity in all these fields you express yourself as an artist?
There are all these tools that I could use. There’s poetry, photography, videography, and speaking, but I don’t necessarily decide that I’m just gonna be a poet or just a photographer. I feel like I’ve always been the kind of person where if something bothers me or if something is important to speak about, I will think of the best way to share this. Most of the time, I will speak about one thing in more than one way, but different audiences will see it on different platforms. People on Instagram will see a poem that I post, and people who come to my studio and see my exhibition.
I don’t like being confined in a box – the more I try to limit my creativity, the harder I find it to use my voice. Sometimes my voice is about art, sometimes my voice is about sports. Existing and being confident in who you are is how I basically feel free.
You have openly shared through your latest art photography work your journey dealing with an eating disorder. What is your opinion and experience about mental health?
I don’t think mental health is as understood as people think it is. This morning I woke up feeling anxious because there was a storm all night – I didn’t sleep well and I woke up with really bad anxiety. If I didn’t have this interview scheduled today, I wouldn’t have gotten up. But I’m also an active person, so how do you explain to people that while I experience lots of mental health issues, I can also function?
People in the medical system want you to not function at all before they support you but we’re always told that premeditation is better than cure. For me, I don’t believe that there’s only one way when it comes to dealing with mental health issues – it’s a combination of different things. Playing sports, finding an outlet, having conversations with friends, understanding that you’re not the only person going through this, and knowing that you have someone who is there for you.