Ibtihaj Muhammad is the second best fencer in America, but is the country’s first athlete to wear a hijab as she represents the US at the Rio Games.
Fencing appealed to her as a sport because it was easier for her to cover up than at other events, but Muhammad is not modest when it comes to expressing herself. She described it as “groundbreaking” that a female Muslim could make it on to Team USA.
‘The story of America’
Prior to the Rio Games, as Muhammad’s inclusion in the event became more widely known, the New Jersey native also became increasingly prominent. Timemagazine listed her as one of the 100 most influential Americans, describing her life as “the story of America”.
Not just a gifted athlete, Muhammad holds two bachelor’s degrees from Duke University in International Relations and African and African-American studies.
But her fencing career began aged just 13 after she joined the school team, though Muhammad gained increasing attention when she kept winning medals in American fencing championships.
She trained hard even during Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims abstain from drinking or eating during daylight hours. She adapted her schedule to allow her to work out closer to her pre-dawn breakfast and brought her entire day forward to avoid burning out before she could refuel after dusk.
“I feel like I have a handle of how much I can do while fasting,” Muhammad told the Huffington Post. “In the past I’ve had muscle injuries during Ramadan, and that’s always my biggest concern going into this holy month and training at the same time.”
Fasting is not easy for anyone, and it’s not meant to be easy Ibtihaj Muhammad
However, her characteristic optimism and work ethic put her struggles into perspective: “Fasting is not easy for anyone, and it’s not meant to be easy,” she told the outlet.
“I don’t think my struggle is any different than anyone else’s. There are people who don’t have access to food or water on a daily basis, but I know when the sun goes down I can eat and drink. I feel very thankful.”
It is this headstrong attitude which has got Muhammad so far. She also described to Self how her some tried to discourage her from fencing early on. “I remember people – my friends! – telling me that I shouldn’t fence because it wasn’t cool,” she told the magazine.
“And I’ve always just kind of done my own thing. I’ve always believed [in myself], and I’ve always been confident, even as a kid. I realize not everybody is like that, but now as an adult, things are clearer in hindsight. And we all know that what your friends have to say is not important in the bigger scope of things, so I wish that girls everywhere knew that.”
Her ascendance comes at a difficult time for the Islamic community in the US. Fueled by two failed wars in Muslim countries and terrorist attacks in Europe, Islamophobia is rampant. Most disturbingly, this was exploited by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who threatened to ban Muslims from the country entirely.
I am excited to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Muslim women Ibtihaj Muhammad
Islamophobia has not bypassed Muhammad. She has described numerous instances of abusive and racist behaviour she has suffered for wearing a hijab and even admitted she feels unsafe in the US.
But Muhammad has risen to the occasion. “I am excited to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions people have about Muslim women,” she told the BBC.
“As a global community, we have to work harder to change our current situation. It is an unhealthy one.”