Ibtihaj Muhammad grew up in New Jersey as the daughter of a detective and a special education teacher. She was a student at Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the founder of Louella, a line of “affordable, modest, fashion forward clothing.” She is also a champion fencer—the first American Olympian to compete wearing a hijab.
Years ago, Muhammad’s mother encouraged her daughter to start fencing when she saw high school students wearing the uniform. Muhammad had had to wear sweatpants and long sleeves to cover herself while running track, but she could fence dressed like everyone else. She explained, “My uniform doesn’t seem different in any way. People don’t see I’m African American in a sport that isn’t diverse, or that I’m a Muslim woman in a sport that isn’t diverse. I’m just solely known for my kind of athletic ability first and foremost.” Wearing her fencing mask, she doesn’t stick out.
But Muhammad has not hidden her hijab behind her uniform. In an interview with NPR, she said, “the reality is that I am different. I mean, I’m African American and I do wear hijab.” Her participation in the Olympics represents an important step forward for her sport and for her country.
Fencing is not known for its diversity. With the high costs of gear and private lessons, the sport is out of reach for many families. Unlike many of her teammates, Muhammad did not compete at a junior level, traveling the world to different competitions. Instead, Muhammad got started as part of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, whose mission is to give students in underserved communities the opportunity to fence. Beneficiaries of the program can take a year’s worth of fencing lessons for $50. At the Olympic level, women have only recently been included. Muhammad’s event, women’s sabre fencing, was not included in the games until 2004.
Muhammad has not shied away from speaking out against bigotry towards Muslims in the U.S. Ahead of the Olympics, Muhammad said, “I’m African American. I don’t have another home to go to. My family was born here. I’ve grown up in Jersey. All my family’s from Jersey. It’s like, well, where do we go?”
Some have argued that Olympics media coverage has dwelled on Muhammad’s hijab, without giving her adequate credit for her athletic ability. Shireen Ahmed writes on Vox, “mainstream media will only speak of Muslim women athletes if it can serve up stereotypical tropes…Why is it only notable when they wear a hijab, or if they’re not dressed just like everyone else?” She suggests that this misguided coverage is at least in part due to representation. Nearly 90 percent of sports reporters are male, and the same percentage is white.
As she makes history, Muhammad’s accomplishments as an athlete should not be overlooked. She is the second best sabre fencer in the U.S., and the eighth best in the world. In Rio, the 31-year-old competed on the U.S. women sabre fencing team and won a bronze medal at her first Olympic games.
Muhammad hopes she can defy stereotypes about Muslim women. “A lot of people believe that Muslim women don’t have voices or participate in sports. And it’s not just to challenge the misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but also within the Muslim community,” Muhammad said. Those misconceptions arise when people do not know what their Muslim neighbors are like. Muhammad is one of 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, but Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. adult population. Nearly half of U.S. adults say they do not know a Muslim person.
Muhammad’s visibility has already spread a fuller picture of an American Muslim woman. TIME Magazine named her one of its 100 Most Influential People. She taught First Lady Michelle Obama a fencing lesson in Times Square this April. Just as her Olympic success has shown the world an accomplished and competitive Muslim woman, her fashion line revolutionizes how women in hijab are perceived on the street. The outfits are colorful, stylish, and lively—not unlike Muhammad.
Over the past few years, she has taught fencing lessons and worked as a substitute teacher, living at home in New Jersey with her parents. During Ramadan, she fasted all day while she trained. She refused to stop either practicing her religion or her sport for the month.
That Ibtihaj Muhammad represents her community and her country should not be a contradiction. It was clear when Muhammad accepted her bronze medal wearing her USA uniform that she need not choose whether to be a woman in a hijab or an Olympian. On that podium, she stood as an athlete, a Muslim, and an American.