A five-time Senior World team medalist and 2014 Senior World Team Champion, Ibtihaj Muhammad, made history in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by being the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympics in a hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women.
Muhammad,—an African American, female, saber fencer—first made history several years ago, when she became the first Muslim woman to compete for the U.S. in fencing.
“I want to compete in the Olympics for the United States to prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals—not race, religion, or gender,” Muhammad said in her USA Fencing bio. “I want to set the example that anything is possible with perseverance.”
Before heading to Rio, she added, “I feel like this is a great moment for Team USA to even be more diverse than we have [been] in the past, and I’m just looking forward to representing myself, my community, and my country.”
Muslim Women Have Voices
Muhammad, a Maplewood, New Jersey native, has used her profile as an Olympian to try to change misconceptions about Muslim Americans. Beyond wearing the hijab, Muhammad’s Olympic presence is significant, given such a divisive presidential election year, with Republican candidate Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and attacking the parents of a Muslim-American war hero. Muslim women fired back at Trump by launching a social media campaign under the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow.
“A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices, or that we participate in sports,” Muhammad said moments after she was eliminated from the saber individual round competition, reports USA Today. “And it’s not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but within the Muslim community. I want to break cultural norms.”
She went on to say, “I’m thankful to God for the experience and allowing me to even be present in this moment. It’s a blessing to represent so many people who don’t have voices, who don’t speak up, and it’s been a really remarkable experience for me.”
Empowering Girls Through Sports
According to the Athlete Bio on the U.S. fencing website, as a Muslim youth, Muhammad’s parents were in search of a sport for her to play, in which she could adhere to the tenants of her faith by being fully covered. She began fencing at age 13, and never looked back. A three-time all-American, she graduated from Duke University with a dual major in international relations and African studies, and a minor in Arabic.
“After I graduated from college, I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport,” Muhammad told TeamUSA.org. “I recognized that I had a skill set, so I started to pursue fencing full time. I felt that it was something the squad needed. There were barriers that needed to be broken in women’s saber.”
Today, she trains in New York City at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, an organization founded to mentor inner-city kids through the sport of fencing. She is a sports ambassador, serving on the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative.
Muhammad also is a budding entrepreneur. In 2014, she launched the clothing company, Louella, which aims to bring modest fashionable clothing to the U.S. market.