Ibtihaj Muhammad makes US history, wears hijab in Olympics – USA TODAY
Ibtihaj Muhammad discusses becoming the first American to compete at the Olympics in a hijab, and changing the conversation on what it means to be a Muslim American.
RIO DE JANEIRO â The easy thing for most athletes who spend four years striving for a spot in the Olympics would have been to run away from the inevitable attention that came with being the first Team USA member to wear a hijab covering her head, to focus singularly on the competition rather than the cultural and social impact her presence here in fencing could make.
But for Ibtihaj Muhammad, it wouldnât have been the right thing.
âA lot of people donât believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sport,â Muhammad said Monday, moments after she was eliminated from the sabre competition in the Round of 16. âAnd itâs not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community but within the Muslim community.Â I want to break cultural norms.â
Muhammad will leave Rio without a medal in the individual competition, though the team event is still pending. But it would be absolutely inaccurate to say she did not make an impact at these Games. That was obvious by the huge throng of American media that showed up to watch her 15-12 loss to Franceâs Cecilia Berder after winning her opener.
Particularly in this year, when the Muslim-American community has become part of the divisive rhetoric in the presidential campaign, Muhammadâs mere presence felt like something far more significant. And at every turn, she embraced the attention that came with it.
âAt the end of the day I feel like itâs me in sport and representing my country and my community. I feel like itâs bigger than myself,â she said. âIâm thankful to God for the experience and allowing me to even be present in this moment.
âItâs hard to even put it into words. I feel like the things that are meant for me will never miss me and failing to win that last match it wasnât in my cards. But I donât feel like any part of this journey has been a burden. Itâs a blessing to represent so many people who donât have voices, who donât speak up and itâs been a really remarkable experience for me.â
A medal, of course, would have made it an even bigger platform for Muhammad. And she may still get one, as the U.S. sabre team is ranked second in the world behind the Russians.
But her first Olympic experience has already given her profound moments, from the adrenaline rush of competing in front of more fans than ever before to meeting members of the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti teams who also wear hijab.
âPeople ask me what does it feel like to be an Olympian? I was like, âI donât know, Iâve never been,â â she said. âUp until that moment, walking hand in hand with my teammates at opening ceremonies, that was the moment I was like, âMan this is real. You actually did it.â You guys see medals and happy moments we post on Instagram but there are so many moments of crying and injuries and missing your family; those are the moments we experience over four years. So to qualify for this team and just walk in at opening ceremonies, all these emotions, itâs almost overwhelming.â
So was the attention for her family, all of whom showed up in Rio and were beaming after her first-round victory on Monday. Her father Shamsiddin Muhammad, a retired narcotics detective, said she had already won a gold medal in his mind and not just for making the Olympics but for trying to open peopleâs eyes to her faith.
âWe talk like that as a family,â he said. âEach one of us has a destiny of what weâre supposed to do in life. We let her go out like that, we raised her properly to say sheâs going to do the right things, say the right things and support the right people. Her followers are very diverse, from Jewish to Italian to French to African-American. You name it, she has that kind of support.â
And now she has a following that could take her to interesting places, including perhaps the political arena. In an interview earlier this year with Time Magazine she called Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump âignorantâ for his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States and said he ârepresents everything we arenât.â
Asked Monday if she thought Trump watched her match, she said she didnât know and didnât seem to particularly care. But she understands and embraces the power of a smart, successful Muslim woman competing at the highest level of athletic competition.
âItâs not just any team, itâs the United States,â she said. âItâs in light of whatâs going on in our country, the political fuss we hear about, all these things I feel like kind of circle back to my presence on Team USA and just challenging those misconceptions people have about who the Muslim woman is.
âItâs almost like, how can you not see that Muslims are like any other group? Weâre conservatives and liberals. Thereâs women who cover and women who donât. There are white Muslims, Arab Muslims, African-American Muslims. There are so many Muslim countries that have women as their heads of state and there are those things I want people to be aware of and see that not just those women but Muslim women who participate in sport like the Saudi Arabian team, the Kuwaiti team, the American team now. Those are the images I want people to see.â
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