A gym of their own: Somali girls learn basketballby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
In a locked gym on Sunday afternoons in Minneapolis, Somali girls and women are getting together to play basketball. There are no fans or spectators, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
Minneapolis — The Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is locked today. But there's plenty of activity inside.
About a dozen Somali high school and college women are playing basketball inside the gym. In this single-sex environment, they don't need to wear scarves and long skirts for religious modesty, but some still do, just out of habit.
Fatimah Hussein is the force behind this unusual chance for Somali girls to have the court to themselves.
"We started with three people the first day. Me, my sister and a friend of my sister," said Hussein.
Word spread, and new players join each week. Hussein works for the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, also located at the Brian Coyle Center. She works with youth.
Hussein noticed the boys having fun shooting hoops in the gym every day, and wanted to start something for the girls. She got help from Melpomene, a St. Paul nonprofit devoted to women's health. They rounded up balls, scrimmage jerseys and two interns to teach them the rules.
Hussein launched Sunday afternoon basketball sessions, and recently added Wednesday nights. She said it's been an adjustment -- for the boys.
"They usually have the gym every day and they're like, 'You guys have weekends, now you want the gym weekdays?'" Hussein told them, "'We have the same bodies as you guys. You guys have fun and we want to have the same.'"
The women are having fun. There's lots of shooting and cheering. Things feel pretty loose. A door is propped open to spot latecomers, so technically anyone could see in. But Hussein said it's private enough that the women can relax.
"The sense of feeling they're safe and no one is watching them," she said.
Sheenah Abdulle, a senior at Edison High school in Minneapolis, found that appealing.
"The thing that really got me was the fact there were no guys. And it's really hard to find that. You try to go places and there's always guys there. And with our religion and our customs, you can't, it doesn't allow that," said Abdulle.
She found her co-ed gym class at her high school pretty uncomfortable. She couldn't wear the required gym clothes of pants and a shirt.
"I couldn't do that because of my religion, so I got docked points. And then I had to run around and I can't run around with guys, so then I got docked points. I mean it's a luck that I passed the class!" she said with a laugh.
Other players said they were able to talk to their gym teachers and find compromises, like wearing modest clothing on top of their gym clothes. But ideally, these women say they would prefer to take gym separately from the boys.
In here, Fatimah Hussein, the organizer, calls it "a sister's club," they're free to concentrate on the game.
Today's biggest cheerleader is Dr. Jo Ann Buysse. She's a Melpomene volunteer who comes each Sunday. Buysse used to coach college women's basketball and now directs the undergraduate Sports Management Program at the University of Minnesota.
Buysse hollers encouragement from the sidelines, takes turns playing herself, and at one point, pushes a stroller up and down the sidelines to entertain a couple of toddlers while their moms play.
Buysse worked with the women on zone defense today, and took one woman aside to work on layups. But mostly, Buysse just wants them to enjoy the game.
"It's really fun to see them have so much fun, even if they're not playing according to all the rules," said Buysse. "But they're learning and they're improving every week and they enjoy their time together, and it's about getting girls physically active."
Recently, Buysse gave Hussein a tour of an old pool at the University of Minnesota where women might be able to swim privately. She's eager to help Hussein expand athletic opportunities for Muslim women.
Hussein says she'd like to add swimming, soccer and badminton. For now, the women are coming from all over the city, carpooling or changing buses to get their time on the court at the Brian Coyle Center.
They have begun leaving their tennis shoes under Fatima Hussein's desk, ready for the next time they come back to play.
- All Things Considered, 03/19/2009, 4:50 p.m.