Ibtihaj Muhammad proved that during her career that athletes can do more and throughout her career, she strived to prove just that.
Ibtihaj was the first woman to wear a hijab while representing the United States of America at the Olympics in 2016 before going one further; she became the first US woman to win a medal (bronze) while wearing the Hijab. This was done for the national fencing team in the Sabre discipline.
Ibtihaj, 35, was introduced to fencing from an early age as it was seen by her parents as a sport that enabled her to maintain her Hijab while competing, something she was keen to wear as she got older. Ibtihaj believed she could inspire younger women who wore the Hijab to get involved in sport if they saw her on the tv or at events, as at the time there was a stigma that wearing a hijab prevented women from participating.
Ibtihaj graduated from Duke University in 2007 after receiving an academic scholarship with an International Relations and African American Studies double major. She’s the middle child of 5 siblings while her father, Eugene, is a retired New Jersey police officer, and her mother, Denise, was an elementary school special education teacher. She was invited to train under the prestigious Westbrook Foundation's Elite Athlete Program where she learnt her craft and was the 2005 Junior Olympic Champion before joining the United States National Fencing Team in 2010.
The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was the location Ibtihaj made history however she also made an impression on the world media that can be said will have influenced a lot of young women globally. Despite getting knocked out in the second round of the Women’s Individual Sabre, she still won a bronze medal as part of the United States Team Sabre by defeating Italy 45-30.
Ibtihaj has been able to make use of her status of a role model by making a difference in a part of her life that affected her when she was very young. Like many children, she was a fan of Barbie dolls but noticed there was a flaw in her collection. None of the Barbie dolls she owned looked like her, and there wasn’t a doll-sized hijab that she could put on. Instead, she would cut pieces of cloth and fabric to wrap around her doll. Fast forward to 2017 and Ibtihaj had a Barbie doll, dressed as a fencer with a hijab on, designed after her. As well as being a sportsperson and role model, she also created a clothing line with her siblings while being an ambassador on the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative.
Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Ibtihaj despite her climb to fame. In an interview she responded to a comment that President nominee Donald Trump made regarding banning Muslims from entering the US, something she called “ignorant”. She went on to say, ““It’s almost like, how can you not see that Muslims are like any other group? We’re conservatives and liberals. There’s women who cover and women who don’t. 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.”
These days, Ibtihaj is content with her career and has unofficially retired from the sport having last competed in 2017. In a career where she’s faced the lows discrimination to the highs of winning an Olympic medal, there’s no doubt the impression she’s made on the sport and on the country of America. She was named in the Time Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People, she met Barack Obama and his wife Michelle and was voted second to Michael Phelps to be the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony.
In 2019, a Nike ad showed her screaming in her fencing uniform and was put up in Times Square, reading “Be the hero you didn’t have”. Ibtihaj Muhammad fought against the odds to try and give young women hope, and is a modern-day hero.