This summer Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first American to compete in the Olympics while sporting the hijab, a headscarf some Muslim women choose to wear. Muhammad, a member of the U.S. Women’s Sabre Team, is ranked 2nd in the United States and 12th in the world.
Competing in Rio is the realization of a life-long dream for Muhammad, Duke graduate and three-time All-American and 2005 Junior Olympic Champion. She missed the 2012 Olympics in London because of an injury, but started strong in Rio, defeating her opponent in the first women’s individual round on Monday. She will compete later in the team competition. Win or lose, Muhammad has already made history in these Olympics, while combatting stereotypes about Muslim women.
“I am excited to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Muslim women,” Muhammad told BBC Sport. “I want to show people that we can not only be on any Olympic team, but on the US Olympic team which is the strongest of the world’s teams.”
Muhammad also hopes to draw attention to the scrutiny she faces outside of the arena as a black woman and as a Muslim. Because fencing requires frequent traveling, she is often subject to extra scrutiny and searches at airports. She was recently asked to remove her hijab while attending the music festival South By Southwest as a featured speaker. And in April, Muhammad tweeted about a man following her down the street in New York City, asking if she was “going to blow something up.”
“America is all that I know. I feel American down to my bones. For anyone to challenge that idea, that I’m not American or that I don’t belong, it’s frustrating,” said Muhammad. “I want people to see a Muslim woman in hijab represent the United States this summer. I don’t want people to think that that’s out of the norm.”
When she’s not competing, Muhammad has been working to empower other girls and young women in her community. She created a clothing line called Louella, because she was frustrated by the lack of affordable, modest fashion available to Muslim women. As a sports ambassador for the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative, she travels the world speaking about the positive impact of athletics on young women. In between her entrepreneurial venture, her ambassadorship and her Olympic training, Muhammad coaches fencing to girls in her community.