Ibtihaj Muhammad is a competitive fencer and one of the best in the world. She is a “five-time Senior World team medalist and 2014 Senior World Team Champion.” This summer she will compete for the U.S. in the sabre fencing category at the 2016 Rio Olympics, making history as the first American Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab. “Muhammad was [also] a member of the United States’ 2014 world champion fencing team and is ranked seventh in the world in her discipline, sabre.”
Growing up Muhammad loved sports, but had trouble finding a sport she loved that also allowed her to remain mostly covered, which was important to her coming from a Muslim family. She still tried her hand a number of different activities from swimming to volleyball to tennis and track, but she always stood out in her more modest athletic gear, until she found fencing when she was 13, or as she puts it, when fencing found her. She was able to dress more modestly without standing in sharp contrast to her peers, while still being able to pursue her athletic potential.
Being the only African American fencer at most of her tournaments and certainly the only one wearing a headscarf, she did still stand out a bit, and at times overhead negative comments being made about her. Despite the obstacles she persevered and steadily progressed, becoming a top athlete and joining the prestigious Peter Westbrook Foundation. Founded by former fencing champion Peter Westbrook, who was the first African American to win an olympic medal in fencing, the foundation teaches fencing to underserved youths in the Greater New York Area. And after graduating high school, Muhammad carried her passion for fencing on to college, receiving a scholarship to Duke University where she studied International Relations and African Studies with a minor in Arabic. It was during this period that she took up the sabre, finding it to be “the closest representation of who [she is].” And who she is is someone who’s certainly never afraid to speak her mind.
As a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, Muhammad is often singled out in airport security lines for questioning or asked to remove her head covering, most recently at a SXSW event in March. She’s stated her first response is always to protest such harrassments and she’s not uncomfortable calling people out for these missteps. Given her position Muhammad has become “an outspoken voice for Muslim women,” stating that she shares her experiences freely and speaks out often on issues facing Muslim women in particular because feels “we have to be more accepting of our neighbors and try to combat the bigotry that we’re experiencing now. More than anything, I want things to change.” In the same vein, Ibtihaj also founded a clothing line: Louella in 2014 after noticing a void in the American fashion industry of clothes that were modest, affordable, and fashionable for women.
This summer Ibtihaj Muhammad will make history as the first hijabi woman to represent the U.S. in an olympic sport, but she will also be representing for the countless American Muslim women who feel ostracized, demonstrating that Muslim women, and specifically Muslim women in hijabs are equally as much a part of this country as anyone else.