Fencers are not usually household names in America, but Ibtihaj Muhammad has gained recognition in the US for an unlikely reason: for being the first U.S. Olympian who will be wearing a hijab during her sport. One of Time magazine’s Most Influential People of 2016, she is African-American, a New Jersey kid of suburban stock who grew up with four other siblings in Maplewood, about 20 minutes outside New York City.
Muhammad has been athletic her whole life, something her family encouraged, even as they made sure to make modest clothes out of athletic attire. “I’d make her outfits that covered her arms and legs, which allowed her to participate while still being true to her faith,” her mother says.
She joined the fencing team at age 13, years after her mother first spotted some high school fencers practicing and thought her daughter could take it up. “I remember we drove by a high school where they were practicing and we didn’t know what it was and my mother said, ‘I want you to try that when you are old enough.’ Later I remember looking up the top colleges and seeing if it was a way to get to college. All the top schools had fencing teams.”
Recruited to go to Duke on an academic scholarship in 2003, she became a three-time All-American and 2005 Junior Olympic Champion. She got dual bachelor’s degrees in international relations and African and African-American Studies and also attended the School for International Training in Rabat, Morocco, where she completed courses in Moroccan culture and intensive Arabic. On her Olympics profile page she lists “Politics, photography, language, football, culture and religion” as her interests.
A member of the U.S. National Fencing Team for the past six years, she failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2012. Now, entering into her first Olympic Games, Muhammad is currently number two in the U.S., Number 12 in the world (she’s made it to Number Seven before), hopes are high on her performance. “I didn’t make it to the 2012 Olympics and people kept calling me an Olympian. I was with a friend once and this little girl came up and said, ‘Oh, it’s the Muslim Olympian,’ and my friend said, ‘You know, she wasn’t in the Olympics,’ and from that point on, I made it my goal. I would never have someone deny me that.”
Muhammad stays quite busy as a public figure. She’s a sports ambassador, where she serves on the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative. She speaks all around the world and loves to teach the sport. And in 2014, Muhammad launched her own clothing company, Louella, which aims to “bring modest, fashion forward clothing to the world,” as her website states. “We felt we needed it because there was clothing that was either not very fashionable or too expensive and we wanted something we’d wear.”
Still, she is very proud to be recognized as a Muslim first and foremost. She always makes sure to pray five times a day. “I just read about some new facilities for worship at the Olympics center – I’m excited to check it out.”
This all comes even as she gets profiled, airport time always extended for her and her family. Muhammed is not surprised – she remembers 9/11 very clearly as a 16-year-old. “I remember the Muslim boys in our class were taken aside – who knows why it was just the Muslim boys – and I knew life would never be the same from that point on.” But it’s important for her to educate people about the fact that African-Americans can also be Muslims. “I never felt connected to Arab culture, but people always think I am. There is not much knowledge of African-American Muslims. They always want to ask where I’m from, where my parents are from, where their parents are from. They never think we’re from here.”
The 2016 Olympics in Rio has a lot to live up to, especially where Muslim women are concerned. The 2012 Games marked the first Olympics where women participated in all 26 sports. And they were also the first time Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei entered women athletes. All in all, several Muslim women stood out as hopefuls, and they received international coverage; Afghan runner Tahmina Kohistani was the only woman from Afghanistan at the 2012 London Olympics. Zahra Lari was the first figure skater from the United Arab Emirates to compete in an international competition in 2012 when she performed at Italy’s European Cup – she was also the first figure skater to compete at that level while wearing a hijab. Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani-American weightlifter, was the first person ever to compete in the sport internationally while wearing a hijab. In 2012, judo fighter Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkani became the first Saudi woman ever to compete in the Olympics (the match wasn’t broadcast in Saudi Arabia, where her participation was forbidden). And Shinoona Salah al-Habsi was one of only four Omani athletes to compete in the London Olympics in 2012.
Fencing has been an Olympic sport since 1896, but this year, with Muhammad representing the U.S., it takes on fresh and weighty significance. As Sean Gregory wrote in Time, this is an opportunity for the Olympic federation to make even more of this novelty, and elevate her in the public eye. “Like many of her American teammates, Muhammad is an inspiration to countless people. But choosing her as a flag bearer is a chance to signal something even greater about what America stands for. It would be a win for all Americans – and Team U.S.A.’s first of the 2016 Olympic Games.”
But Muhammad is just focused on the sport for now, even as the world watches, particularly fellow Muslim-Americans. Muslim activist Linda Sarsour speaks for many of us when she declares Muhammad is “not representing Muslim Americans. She’s a Muslim representing the United States of America.” When one asks Muhammad about her three layers of marginal identity – black, Muslim, female – and which is the most difficult to project, she almost laughs. “I don’t think of any of them as hard. Growing up it was always an honor to be all of those things. Whatever was hard was what others brought to it. It’s all really a big dream. I don’t think it’s hit me yet. The honor of representing Muslim and black women is one I don’t take lightly.”