Ibtihaj Muhammad: Proud to be America’s first Olympian in a hijab
Today’s fencing will see history made – but some in the US would rather it wasn’t
She was followed down the street by a man shouting that she was ‘going to blow something up’
There are still a few people out there who claim that Ibtihaj Muhammad is not truly American, which when you consider the facts of the matter is a vaguely ludicrous claim. She was born and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey; her father is a retired detective and her mother is a teacher. She was a three-time allAmerican at Duke University and graduated with a double major in international relations. She has appeared on the Late Show and been name-checked in a speech by President Obama. She is about to compete for Team USA in the Rio Olympics and is sponsored by a company called Dick’s Sporting Goods. Literally, how much more American do you want her to be?
But then, if Muhammad were just your average American, then you would not be reading about her. She is not the best fencer in the world, or even the best sabre fencer in America. But the woman her friends call “Ibti” will be making history this afternoon, whether she wins a medal or not, when she becomes the first American Olympian to compete wearing the Muslim hijab.
This has made her something of a cause célèbre in the States since she qualified for the Games in February. She was named one of
Time’s 100 most influential people of 2016; Late Show host Stephen Colbert challenged her to a sabre duel in the studio and lost 5-0. In fact, famous people have been queueing up to battle her: she fenced against Michelle Obama as part of the country’s 100-days-togo celebrations.
So far, so pleasant. But then you go to the Team USA website and read the first comment underneath a story about her qualification, which reads, “What a disgrace, this is disgusting”, and you remember that this is America in 2016, a country where 55 per cent of people admit to “an unfavourable opinion” of Islam, and where a man who has made one of his flagship policies banning Muslims from entering the country is running for president. Yes, this is the America of Donald Trump now, or at least it is getting that way, and this is what makes Muhammad’s presence such an irritant to the unenlightened.
“We have people in the presidential race who are providing a platform for hate speech and fearmongering,” Muhammad said in a recent interview. “When I hear people here say they want to throw all Muslims back to their country, I think: well, where am I going to go? This is my home. I feel American to my bones.”
Even being an Olympian is no insurance against prejudice. A few days before she crossed swords with the First Lady in Times Square, she was followed down the street by a man shouting that she was going to “blow something up”. And it is a prejudice you occasionally see mirrored in the sporting world. Sporting bodies, most of them still mired in Western culture and values, have been lamentably slow to cater for athletes of strong religious faith.
Growing up as a child in New Jersey, Muhammad found her sporting options limited. While her high school team-mates wore Spandex to volleyball practice, Muhammad would trundle along
in tracksuit bottoms. When Ibti was 13, her mother Denise was driving past the local high school when she saw fencing practice taking place and . realised that the full-body suit and face mask would make it an ideal sport for her competitive, sports-mad daughter.
And so Ibti began fencing. She would take the hour-long train from Maplewood into Manhattan, to be coached by former Olympic bronze medallist Peter Westbrook. But it was not until she went to Duke that she fully committed to the sport. “There were barriers that needed to be broken,” she said. “It’s always been a white sport reserved for people with money.”
This is a reputation that clings to fencing, and not without reason. The cost of equipment and electronic scoring systems makes it prohibitive to most families, while until recently the sport’s moral code appears to have been derived from the Habsburg era. Sabre, the fastest and most violent of the fencing disciplines, was off-limits to women at the Olympics until 2004.
So Muhammad worked as a fencing coach and a supply teacher to fund her career. She set up an online clothing boutique dedicated to “modest fashion”. On the piste, she initially found things toughgoing. Most elite fencers begin when they are seven or younger, and are funnelled through a gilded apparatus of finishing schools and international junior tournaments.
Muhammad had none of that. She was a relatively late developer – this will be her first Olympics at the age of 30 – and has bridged the gap with the help of a brutal fitness regime and sheer hard work. She will compete in today’s individual event and the team competition with double Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis.
The latter offers a decent chance of a medal, and with it another blow in the fight to reshape crooked perceptions of Muslims. Muhammad takes the traditional stereotypes of Muslim women and slashes them to bits. She is vocal, opinionated, competitive, unashamed of her beauty. And now she is competing in the biggest sporting event on Earth in front of an audience of billions. Never let anyone tell you the Olympics don’t mean anything.
Patriot games: ‘I feel American to my bones,’ says Ibtihaj Muhammad