Arena: Woman of The Hour Makes U.S. Olympic History
Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is stunning people across the nation at a time where Muslim Americans are struggling with their cultural identity due to misleading stereotypes. She will make history this year as the first U.S. Olympic athlete to compete in the games, while wearing a hijab. She is making waves in her career, and it is only the beginning. Upon graduating from Duke University, she trained vigorously and stayed committed to her sport, earning a spot on The United States National Fencing Team. She is now ranked No. 2 in the U.S. and eighth internationally in women's sabre fencing. After being propelled into the spotlight, some would assume that Muhammad is less prone to the racism that Muslim Americans face in their daily lives. Unfortunately, Muhammad knows all too well what being an outsider feels like. As the only Muslim woman on Team USA this summer, she has developed thick skin and a great sense of pride in her background. But, that does not mean she is immune to some harsh commentary about her hijab and religious identity. In April, Muhammad tweeted about a man who followed her down the street in New York, saying that she looked "suspicious" and asking if she was going to "blow something up." Not only does she have to endure this treatment in her day to day life, but also in a professional environment. After being asked to speak at the South by Southwest festival, she had an incident with a worker who told her to remove her hijab in order to take an identification photo. Festival officials later apologized, but Muhammad was deeply upset by the conversation.
So how does she deal with that kind of additional animosity, while training for the biggest stage in the world of sports? It takes years of strength, charisma, and determination. She started fencing at the age of 13 and has focused on perfecting her craft from day one. Muhammad said that fencing was never in the cards, but that the sport found her. During a car ride past her high school in Maplewood, N.J., 12-year old Muhammad and her mother could not help but notice the conservative attire the athletes wore at fencing practice.
"Fencers, they wear long jackets, and they wear long pants. And as a Muslim youth, I was looking for a sport where I didn't have to alter the uniform in any way," Muhammad said.
As a kid, she tried to participate in other sports, but had to wear additional clothing under the standard uniform, constantly worrying about making it work. She felt as though she was never truly part of the team, but fencing allowed her the opportunity to only worry about the sport itself and not the attire. With a newfound love for fencing, Muhammad began to take her game to the next level. Things really started to take a turn for her in 2002, when she joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a program that uses fencing as a tool to develop crucial life skills and values in young people from underserved communities in the NY area. While Muhammad continued to break barriers in the fencing world, she also realized the hardships she had to face.
"Sometimes she tells me, 'Peter, being a black woman is not easy. Being a Muslim woman is not easy. Combine the two, I walk down the street, I catch hell,' " says Peter Westbrook, one of Muhammad's fencing mentors.
Characterized by a strong willed persona, Muhammad continued to navigate a predominately white sport. Reaching new heights this year, she qualified for the Rio Olympics in February when she took home the bronze medal at the Women's Saber World Cup in Athens, Greece. Under the guidance of her coach, 2000 Sydney Olympian Akhi Spencer-El, she has been in full fledged training mode, ready to take the Olympics by storm. There is barley any down time for the rising athlete, who is continually working on new projects. In 2014, she launched her own clothing company, Louella, which brings modest fashionable clothing to the U.S. She is also an ambassador for the U.S. Department of State's Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative. She is committed to helping young women make strides in the sports world as well as encourage the value of education.
With all eyes on Muhammad competing in Rio, she will make history. The Olympics is truly a platform for cross cultural connections and a celebration of diversity. Of course, Muhammad is proud to represent her country and wants the world to know that she is no different than any other American citizen.
"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," Muhammad says. "I want people to see a Muslim woman in hijab and represent the United States this summer. I don't want people to think that that's out of the norm."
Muhammad says she wishes she wasn't the first Muslim woman in a hijab to represent Team USA. But she hopes she won't be the last.