MINNEAPOLIS - Nearly every day, Somali boys and young men gather at the Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to shoot hoops in the gym.
But there are times when the boys are locked out — and the gym is set aside just for the girls.
In a single-sex environment, the high school students and young women can learn basketball, cut loose a little, and they don't need to wear scarves and long skirts for religious modesty.
Fatimah Hussein, who works for the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said the boys were having fun playing basketball every day, and she wanted to start something for the girls.
Melpomene, a St. Paul nonprofit devoted to women's health, helped round up balls, scrimmage jerseys and two interns to teach the rules.
Hussein started Sunday afternoon 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 said. She responded, "'We have the same bodies as you guys. You guys have fun and we want to have the same.'"
There have been newcomers every week. And the young women say they are having fun. There's lots of shooting and cheering, and while door is propped open for latecomers, Hussein said it's private enough that the women can relax.
"The thing that really got me was the fact there were no guys. And it's really hard to find that," said Sheenah Abdulle, a senior at Edison High school in Minneapolis. "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."
She said her coed gym class at her high school was 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.
Other players said they reached compromises in school gym class, like wearing modest clothing on top of gym clothes. But ideally, they said, separate classes are better.
Hussein calls her group "a sister's club," where the girls can focus on the game.
Jo Ann Buysse, a Melpomene volunteer, is one cheerleader. She used to coach college women's basketball and now directs the undergraduate Sports Management Program at the University of Minnesota. On a recent Sunday, she shouted encouragement from the sidelines, and worked with the women on zone defense.
"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 showed Hussein 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.
For now, the women are coming from all over the city to play basketball. Hussein said they have begun leaving their athletic shoes under Hussein's desk — ready for the next time they come to play.
Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org
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