Ibtihaj Muhammad will make Olympic history this summer before the games even begin. Muhammad, 30, will be the first U.S. Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab.
Muhammad, who currently ranks No. 7 among the top saber fencers in the world, won a bronze medal in Athens, Greece at the Women’s World Saber Cup on Jan. 30. While the Olympic team for 2016 will not be officially announced until April, this win gave Muhammad enough points to secure her spot on the team.
Muhammad began fencing at age 13 in high school. Fencing uniforms cover athletes’ heads, which is part of the reason Muhammad’s parents introduced her to the sport, the athlete recalled in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
“My parents were looking for a sport for me to play where I wouldn’t have to alter the uniform as a Muslim woman,” she explained.
Muhammad enjoyed a variety of sports in high school and said her parents were always supportive of her but also made sure she took competitions seriously.
“Most parents tell their kids before matches to do their best, or to have fun,” Muhammad said. “My mom always said the same thing: ‘Don’t waste my money.'”
Pursuing athletics as a Muslim is also significant within the Muslim community because, according to Muhammad, “there is a sense that you are always a doctor or a lawyer.”
“There are a lot of African American athletes, but I can’t think of a female Muslim woman I can look up to for inspiration as an athlete,” she said.
Adding to this challenge, Muhammad saw from the beginning that her sport of choice was very much dominated by whites.
“Historically, it’s always been a white sport reserved for people with money,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a good representation of the U.S., or of society as a whole.” With no Muslim athletes to serve as role models while she was growing up, Muhammad looked up to tennis star sisters Serena and Venus Williams.
Muhammad was eventually recruited for Duke University’s fencing team and stuck with the sport after college so she could be a barrier-breaker in the sport.
“It wasn’t diverse enough,” she said. “Being an African American Muslim woman, I can be that change.”
Being that change is not easy, however, because being a Muslim in America at all is currently a challenge: “It’s a struggle to be a Muslim woman right now,” Muhammad said in an interview with CNN. “For all Muslims in our country.”
Muhammad’s efforts have now paid off in a big way, though, even garnering her a shout out from President Barack Obama, who recently made a speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, a mosque that is almost fifty years old.
“I told her to bring home the gold,” Obama said of the athlete. “Not to put any pressure on [her].”
Muhammad’s achievements come at a time where relations with Muslim Americans are strained, a problem that is further exacerbated by destructive anti-Muslim rhetoric being spread in the media particularly by Donald Trump, who called for a database tracking all Muslims as well as for a ban on all Muslims entering the country. Destiny Velez, Miss Puerto Rico 2015, was suspended by the Miss Puerto Rico Organization following her own rant on social media bashing Muslims and expressing her support for Trump’s outrageous proposals.
Despite Muhammad’s accomplishments, occurrences such as these leave her apprehensive about the future. “We are at an interesting crossroads I think,” she said. “It could get bad here.”
The president addressed this problem in his speech in Baltimore and said that the country needs to do better at not perpetuating stereotypes.
“We have to lift up the contributions of the Muslim American community not when there’s a problem, but all the time,” he said. “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security. It’s not that hard to do.”
Obama also slammed the proposals to have Muslim Americans kicked out of the country. He emphasized that Muslim Americans are just as much a part of America as every other citizen, a sentiment that rings even more true as Muhammad prepares to represent the country in the Olympics this summer.
“Let me say as clearly as I can as president of the United States: you fit right here,” he said. “You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American.”
The Olympics, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro, also made headlines recently after the International Olympics Committee released new guidelines allowing transgender athletes to compete without requiring them to undergo gender reassignment surgery.