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Philip Hersh: Ibtihaj Muhammad’s Olympic Qualification A Ray Of Hope For Muslim-American Women

By Philip Hersh | April 20, 2016, 9:35 a.m. (ET)

Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team U.S. Media Summit on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

Ibtihaj Muhammad was not making a fashion statement. What she wore at the Team USA Media Summit last month in Los Angeles spoke of something much more significant.

She was dressed in blue jeans, a white jacket with a red U.S. Olympic team logo and a charcoal scarf covering her head, ears and neck, lining the oval of her copper-colored face.

It was the scarf that had drawn all the attention. There is an irony in having that dark, monochrome scarf be the attraction, given that Muhammad has such a sense of style she has launched a clothing line full of distinctive apparel in bright colors and intricate patterns.

The scarf, known now as hijab although referred to in the Quran as khimar, is plenty eye-catching in one of Muhammad’s worlds, the world of Olympic sports, where few wear it.

For Muhammad and many Muslim women, hijab is a symbol of both their identity and their spiritual connection to God. And she is soon to be the first U.S. athlete who competes in hijab at the Olympics.

Ibtihaj Muhammad addresses the media at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

So it is even more important that this Muslim-American and African-American fencer, this American woman, has a sense of self that shone brightly as she sat in a director’s chair at The Beverly Hilton, facing wave after wave of reporters over more than an hour, answering some questions over and over, ducking none completely even if she deflected some deftly.

Her presence in the 2016 summer Games at a moment when many Muslim-Americans and African-Americans feel threatened and stigmatized in the United States can have a powerful impact. Just making the team, which became official in late January, has given her a platform she readily ascended, whether in her pull-no-punches Twitter comments, Time Magazine, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” or sitting in the tall chair at the media summit.

“We’re looking for any kind of ray of hope in this frightening atmosphere we are in,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations. “She is obviously a very bright ray of hope.”

At 30, with bachelor’s degrees from Duke in international relations and African studies, fluency in Arabic and five team event medals (one gold, four bronzes) at the World Fencing Championships, Muhammad realizes she has been given the opportunity to direct the conversation toward issues of paramount importance to her, her community and the nation at large. No matter how fatiguing that may be, how much it could possibly distract her attention from fencing at her best in Rio, this is not a chance she will let pass.

“I owe it to people who look like me and fight these struggles every day with this fear-mongering and hate we are experiencing,” she said. “I owe it to all of us to combat these notions of bigotry. I have to speak out against it for African-Americans, for other minorities in this country because there are people who did it before me.”

And she also had herself to think of.

When the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, led to heightened Islamophobia in this country, Muhammad worried she might not be able to return after competing overseas in the final Olympic qualifying meets last winter. She also wondered if she would even be banned from the flights leaving the U.S. to get to those meets.

Two days after the media summit, she faced a hassle during the credentialing process for South by Southwest, where she was speaking on a panel. A volunteer who saw the hijab told Muhammad she had to take it off for the accreditation photo. Her explanation of wearing it for religious reasons was not immediately accepted, creating an uncomfortable situation she detailed on Twitter.

“She has never been one to shy away from a fight or from speaking her mind,” Alex Massialas, also a 2016 fencing Olympic qualifier, said admiringly. “All fencers take a great source of pride in her. She is a great role model and an amazing fencer.”

SXSW officials would apologize both publicly and personally to Muhammad for the incident.

At the media summit, she had been asked if such issues and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the 2016 political campaign made her wonder why she wanted to represent the United States. Her answer was an emphatic, “Never.”

“I have never questioned myself as an American,” she said. “This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth.

“When I hear someone say something like, ‘We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,’ it’s like, ‘Where am I going to go? I’m American.’”

She grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, a suburban township of some 24,000 inhabitants about 25 miles from Manhattan. Her father, Eugene, is a retired narcotics detective, her mother, Denise, a retired special education teacher. Ibtihaj is the third of their five children, born with a fierce competitive streak encouraged by sibling battles with her brother, Qareeb.

“She has drive and never stops fighting, never gives up, no matter the situation,” said Eliza Stone, part of four-woman U.S. teams including Muhammad that won one gold and two bronze medals in the team saber event at the last three World Fencing Championships. 

Such a personality was perfectly suited for sports. Muhammad tried volleyball, softball, tennis and track but did not feel fully part of the team in any because she wore both the hijab and different uniforms, altered by her mother to cover arms and legs.

“When you have to change the uniform, I think you lose that sense of camaraderie,” Muhammad said.

At age 12 came the accidental epiphany that would have a life-changing impact for her.

Muhammad and her mother were stopped at a red light near the high school in Maplewood. Large windows in the building allowed them to see kids practicing a sport that has a mask covering the head and face and bulky clothing covering the rest of the body.

Ibtihaj Muhammad poses for pictures at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.

Denise Muhammad did not know what sport it was. She insisted her daughter try it because it would accommodate their religious beliefs about clothing and not single her out, with the hijab barely visible under the mask.

Mother and daughter were in luck. New Jersey is this country’s fencing hotbed, home to nearly two-thirds of the 1,876 high school girls participating in the sport nationally, according to 2014-15 statistics compiled by The National Federation of State High School Associations. Her high school, Columbia, has won 12 girls state team titles since 1998, two with her as captain. Her younger sister, Faizah, 24, became a two-time individual state champion in saber and is currently ranked eighth in the U.S.

So Denise Muhammad was able to quickly find a local fencing club for Ibtihaj, then a middle schooler.

“I tried it, and I hated it,” she said. “But I was very goal-oriented as a kid. When you come from a family of five, you have to get pretty creative on how you plan to pay for college. I found the top schools in the country all had fencing teams. That’s why I stuck with it initially.”

There are 43 schools in the three NCAA divisions with fencing teams. They include all of the top 10 schools, Duke among them, in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings of what the magazine categorizes as “national universities.”

Two things helped turn Muhammad’s interest in fencing from pragmatic to passionate.

One was switching from epee to saber, the weapon that best fit her aggressive, in-a-New-York-minute character. The other was learning about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, created in 1991 by the five-time Olympic competitor to expose children from underserved areas in metropolitan New York City to fencing and the life skills one could gain while learning the sport.

At the Harlem-based club, Muhammad felt the comfort of being in an environment where many of the young athletes looked like her. She also got excellent instruction from the likes of Westbrook and her current primary coach, 2000 U.S. Olympian Akhi Spencer-El.

From day one, she was a handful.

“I don’t agree,” she would frequently tell Westbrook.

“Who asked your opinion?” Westbrook would reply, trying to hide his admiration for the feistiness he has found to be part of her DNA.

She would become a three-time All-American at Duke, then begin working her way toward the top of the national rankings. She currently stands second to two-time Olympic champion Mariel Zagunis, which gives Muhammad a place in both the individual and team events at Rio.

No less a fan than President Obama gave Muhammad a shout-out and told her to bring back the gold when she was in the audience during his visit to a Baltimore mosque this winter.

Despite having finished third in two of her four world cups this season, Muhammad’s best chance at an Olympic medal would more likely be in the team event. She finished 13th at the 2015 world championships and stood 12th globally in the latest individual world rankings, while the U.S. saber team has won medals in five straight worlds and currently is ranked fourth.

A medal will not define Muhammad’s achievement at the Games. Her inspirational triumph is assured, no matter what happens in the competition.

“For American Muslim women, she is a very potent symbol of empowerment,” CAIR’s Hooper said. “Muslim girls need to see they can succeed in any form of athletics and can participate while maintaining their religious principles.”

Going back to the Prophet Muhammad’s words and actions, as reported by Islamic scholars in accounts known as hadiths, Islam has encouraged physical activity. One hadith describes footraces between the Prophet and Aisha, one of his wives. Another hadith has the Prophet recommending the values of working with horses, walking, swimming and archery.

For many Muslim girls, being publicly involved in sport can cause conflicts with their beliefs about dress as well as cultural obstacles over what a woman should be allowed to do.

Olympic champions from some Muslim countries, notably hurdler Nawal El-Moutawakel of Morocco (now an International Olympic Committee vice-president) and miler Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria, have competed in revealing clothes but faced virulent and sometimes menacing disapproval from many of their compatriots for doing so. It took intense pressure from former IOC President Jacques Rogge for Muslim nations Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar, the last holdouts, simply to include a woman on their Olympic teams for the first time at London 2012.

The international federations in weightlifting, volleyball and soccer recently have lifted restrictions against women competing in hijab, while fencing and shooting long have been sports well suited to accommodate the Islamic idea of modesty in dress. Egyptian sisters Eman and Shaimaa El-Gammal both wore hijab while fencing at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

“When I discovered fencing, I was able to be in uniform with my teammates. I wasn’t necessarily being acknowledged for my skin or religion; people were focused on my skill set as an athlete,” Ibtihaj Muhammad said. “As a kid, that was very fulfilling to me.

“Sports is such a big part of American life. When I look at the Muslim community, sport is not always encouraged among the young women. I would love for it to be part of their daily lives not because I want everyone to be a fencer but because it is a tenet of our faith.”

Lea Krueger of Germany and Ibtihaj Muhammad (R) compete during individual women's saber at the FIE Grand Prix on March 26, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.

A British project called “Muslim Girls Fence” was created to help in “challenging misperceptions of Muslim women and making fencing more inclusive to young people of all backgrounds.”

For Muhammad, one of those misconceptions comes from stereotyping, especially of those women whose hijab makes them immediately identifiable as Muslims – with all the attendant consequences, from sidelong glances to expressions of hatred to death threats.

“Some people have a very narrow image of who the Muslim woman is,” she said. “I know Muslim women are very, very diverse, especially in the United States. We come in different shapes, colors and sizes, different backgrounds, and we are productive members of society.”

One of her reasons for starting the clothing company, Louella, was giving Muslim women – and others – a chance to express that individuality in apparel that, as its Facebook page says, “delivers a new fresh and vibrant look to the modest fashion industry.” Her brother, Qareeb, manages the company’s Los Angeles-based production.

There are times when all the responsibilities pile up, when Westbrook can see the stress on Muhammad.

“The Creator put you in this situation,” he tells her. “He put the burden on your shoulders to uplift yourself and uplift people who are oppressed. This stress is not greater than what you overcame to make the Olympic team.”

Westbrook makes her understand she can handle it all. He also reminds her that she can’t be pulled in so many directions at once that she veers from the path of athletic excellence allowing her to be more than an athlete.

“There are always moments when you just want to focus on training and being an athlete,” Muhammad said. “But at the same time, when I think about my safety and the safety of my mother or sisters or friends, I feel I have to speak out. I have to challenge the idea that in some way, we don’t belong because of our race or religion.”

Nothing is more red, white and blue than a U.S. Olympic team. Few groups are more multi-colored or ethnically and religiously diverse than the U.S. team that will compete in Rio. Theirs will be the faces of the best of America in a variety of sports, the best of America in many other ways as well.

At least one member of the team will wear hijab in public. It will make Ibtihaj Muhammad stand out. She already is a standout fencer, one who can show that nothing is more fashionable than to be different and yet to fit perfectly into the fabric of her country.

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.

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Ibtihaj Muhammad