This summer, Ibtihaj Muhammad will be the first Muslim American to ever compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab.
She’ll be competing in fencing--another first for a Muslim American Olympic athlete.
Fencing was not Muhammad’s first sport of choice when she was a kid growing up in New Jersey. She tried softball, tennis, track and volleyball, but none of these made it easy to wear a hijab and other body-concealing clothing--not because such garments impeded her movement but because she looked out of place and was, therefore, stigmatized.
Fencing, with its head and face covering helmet and full body suits, just happened to be the sport that best accommodated her cultural background as a Muslim.
She began competing when she was 13 and quickly excelled, earning numerous awards throughout high school.
She continued to thrive in the sport, racking up all sorts of world tournament medals, and would have competed in the 2012 Olympics had it not been for a torn hand ligament.
A recent profile in the New Yorker suggested that Muhammad may be a flag bearer for the US at the 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. If the US celebrated a Muslim on the most exalted athletic stage in the world, it would profoundly challenge the escalating prejudice faced by Muslims in the country.
Muhammad was born and raised in the US, but has always been treated as somewhat separate from the broader culture. She was in high school when 9/11 occurred and a furious storm of hostility towards Muslims broke across the US.
“Her mother recalled, “9/11 impacted everyone. The children were ostracized and targeted. People shouted at me when I drove down the street.”
In the New Yorker profile, Muhammad said she routinely receives wary looks and hears derogatory comments. When she enters a room, people avoid eye contact with her. At the airport, TSA agents treat her as a foreigner to be investigated.
Since the US Presidential race began last year, hostility towards muslims has escalated. First Republican candidates called for bans on Muslim travel and for increased police monitoring in Muslim communities. Then the San Bernardino shooting occurred and hate crimes against Muslims tripled.
We're living in a time where people feel comfortable spewing their hate and harassing the innocent on our streets. We need change.— Ibtihaj Muhammad (@IbtihajMuhammad) April 16, 2016
On an Olympics profile released by TEAM USA, the first posted comment says, “what a disgrace. This is disgusting.”
And as an African American, Muhammad has faced double discrimination.
Despite all the attempts to tear her down and shame her for her differences, Muhammad said she will proudly represent her country this summer in Brazil.
For her, fencing is about far more than athletic excellence. It’s about dismantling all the hate and misconceptions in society.
When she goes for the gold this summer, people will be confronted with an image that’s never been seen before: a Muslim woman wearing a hijab competing on the US Olympics team.
It will force people to reimagine their conceptions of what it means to be Muslim.
And with any luck it won’t be an image that shocks anyone come the 2018 Winter Olympics or the 2020 Summer Olympics.