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.
"There's nothing like running suicides together," jokes Hebah - a reference to the classic sprint-bend-and-pivot drills her teammates clearly detest.
"Yeah, that's bonding," Sophie Brelvi agrees with an ironic smile.
Brelvi suffers from asthma, so conditioning is no joke for her. Her teammates, too, have had to work hard to get in shape after growing up in a culture that often discourages girls from active play. Some had to overcome the objections of older family members and mosque leaders who think it's unseemly for Muslim women to compete.
Since joining the team and working out regularly, Ruhi Brelvi says, "I have a better outlook on life. I feel healthier - basically, more confident."
And of course, the Cyclones have faced the same sexist ridicule that's dogged female athletes of most cultures, religious or secular, for centuries.
"A lot of people think girls can't play basketball," Sophie Brelvi shrugs.
"Especially Muslim girls," Ruhi chimes in.
"Especially us," Suzanne Hamid adds. More laughter.
`These women are very confident'
"These issues are really very deeply culturally entrenched," says Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of religious studies at Duke University. "Some (Muslim) cultures are more resistant to women's athletic participation than others."
That resistance has no basis in religion, the professor adds; there's nothing in the Quran that says, "No sports for girls." Still, Islamic traditions of modest dress and minimal contact with men outside the family do make for an uneven playing field.
At the Olympic level, Muslim women have competed successfully in events such as riflery, where the hijab and chador don't affect performance. In Barcelona in 1996, when Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria won a gold medal in the 1,500 meters, running in a standard track uniform, her show of leg made her an outcast rather than a hero among some back at home.
In 2004, the same year female Olympians from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Somalia competed in Athens, some 500 Muslim activists in Bangladesh staged a protest against their country's first women's soccer league. One Islamic leader called the league "satanic."
Those attitudes are changing, Moosa says, as women across the Muslim world claim a greater share of equality - in the mosque, at home, at school, in the workplace, and increasingly, in outside endeavors like sport. Here in the United States, he says, more communities are offering girls-only hours at public pools, for instance, to accommodate Muslims.
Another sign of Muslim girls' rising femme-jock profile: retailers like Ahiida, a clothing company based in Australia (www.ahiida.com), whose superhero-style "Burquini" swimwear and other innovations suit active women of many faiths who prefer to cover up.
The Cyclones, incidentally, were trendsetters at the beach in Tampa, since the day's blistering winds made the girls' full-body swimwear and headscarves the height of practical fashion. Suzanne Hamid and Kawthar Suleiman, in fact, aspire to careers in Islamic clothing design. Hebah Sadek, bound for medical school, hopes to become a pediatrician. Sophie Brelvi has interests in business and international law; Ruhi Brelvi, art therapy.
"These women, they are very confident. They are very sure of themselves," Moosa says of the Charlotte team. "It's clear from your observations that these women are very practicing (of their Islamic faith). They are observing the teachings. They feel they can flourish within those boundaries.
"The story cannot always be, `Oh, they are so oppressed.' Part of the learning process is to understand what makes other people tick and what gives them satisfaction, without using our own standards as the measuring yardstick," Moosa adds. "We need to be able to live with difference."
`Everyone played their hearts out'
So how did the Cyclones do at the big dance?
At the Tampa tournament in March, the Charlotte women were eliminated after three hard-fought games. But they were recognized at the awards ceremony for their spirit and sportsmanship. Tearful and exhausted after their defeat, the Cyclones escaped the gym, embraced each other, and hoisted coach Hebah on their shoulders with a loud cheer under the Florida sun.
"Everyone played their hearts out," Hala Sadek says. "It wasn't about the basketball."
"I was so proud of them," says Rose Hamid, the team's driver and chaperone. "Their sense of teamwork is so phenomenal. They have this bond of sisterhood within the Muslim community, but they're also able to thrive outside the Muslim community. They're tethered - and I think that's what so many people lack."
The hijab and other Islamic practices the Cyclones share, Hamid suggests, have minimized much of the cattiness, body-image-angst, competition over boys and other tensions typical of friendships among teenage girls in general. Suzanne Hamid and her teammates spend as much time text-messaging, updating their Facebook pages and poring over magazines like Vogue as their non-Muslim counterparts do - but, on the entire 12-hour drive to Florida, no one mentioned a guy.
"Being women who are covered, that sends a message that our value does not come from our sexuality," Rose Hamid says. "It frees your mind up to think about other things."
"I love these girls," says Cyclone Laila Alkahlout, 17. "I like basketball. I finally found my thing."
To learn more
Islamic Society of Greater Charlotte, 7025 The Plaza; 704-536-2016; www.isgcharlotte.com.
Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith group with occasional forums on Islam, 601 East Blvd.; 704 347 2404; www.meckmin.org.
Muslim American Society, based in Virginia, sponsor of the tournament where the Cyclones competed in Tampa, Fla.: 703-998-6525; www.masnet.org/youth.asp.
Stories behind the story
"I began photographing the girls on this team when they were Girl Scouts and stayed in touch. When I heard they were playing basketball and were fully covered, I could immediately imagine the compelling photos."
"I didn't realize I had a preset attitude toward Muslims, of either gender - until I met these amazing, warm, hilarious young women, and all my expectations took a 180."