Ibtihaj Muhammad Will Be The 1st Team USA Athlete To Compete At The Olympics Wearing The Hijab

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She may not yet be a huge household name like Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin, but athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad is the new face of Team USA. Come August, when the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil kick off, this fencing champion will be talked about in more ways than one.

But she has already made history, and she hasn’t even boarded the plane to Rio de Janeiro! Ibtihaj is the first athlete from the US to compete with a hijab, after successfully qualifying during an event in February. She is also became the first Muslim woman to compete for the US in fencing on an international level a few years ago, showing her boundary-breaking prowess is on a roll.

Being African-American and Muslim in a very Caucausian-dominated sport means Ibtihaj has now become a major role model to many other athletes across the US who don’t look at mainstream professional sports or the media and see themselves reflected back at them. This was something Ibtihaj grew up with and is now stoked at the opportunity to be part of the change.

“Historically, it’s always been a white sport reserved for people with money. I don’t think it’s a good representation of the U.S., or of society as a whole,” she told Buzzfeed in an interview after qualifying for the Olympics.

“When most people picture an Olympic fencer, they probably do not imagine a person like me. Fortunately, I am not most people,” she said in an interview with USA Fencing.

“After I graduated from college, I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport. I recognized that I had a skill set, so I started to pursue fencing full time. I felt that it was something the squad needed. There were barriers that needed to be broken in women’s saber,” she said to TeamUSA.org.

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The 30 year-old has been involved in fencing since she was 13 in high school, but came into the sport in an unusual way.

“My parents were looking for a sport for me to play where I wouldn’t have to alter the uniform as a Muslim woman,” she said, alluding to the convenience that the fencing uniform requires the athlete to be covered from head to toe. Her career was so successful in high school she was then recruited by Duke University to be part of their team. It was after graduating she decided to take it up as a professional career.

Her determination to be the best has been evident at almost every point in her career. So far she has won an array of medals and titles, competing in the fencing world cup since she was 23 and is ranked 7th in the world in Saber Fencers.

“I’m a very goal-oriented person. It’s been a trend throughout my athletic career: I set small goals, then once reached, I set a new one. I’ve been doing really well. I felt excited to medal (at the World Cup in Athens), but I honestly didn’t think much about the Olympics,” she told Buzzfeed, but now it seems even that goal has been added to her list.

Given the way women are still frustratingly paid less than men in competitive sports, as seen most clearly in the USWNT suing USA Soccer for the ridiculous pay disparity even after winning 3 world cups and setting the record for the most viewers for any broadcast soccer game in US history, competing at an Olympic can lead to the ability for female athletes to viably make professional sports a full-time career. Competing at the Olympics can bring household and international recognition, big-name sponsors, and an iconic status that lasts throughout history.

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But Ibtihaj will also have to battle through another barrier – the fact that she is an hijab-wearing American athlete, defying social conventions and of course making some people uncomfortable. At the most recent SXSW event in Austin, Texas, she says she was callously asked to “remove her hat” from a volunteer at a check-in table in order to get her badge. In the video below, Ibtihaj describes how she thought the guy was joking, yet he insisted she should know she was “in Texas”, as if threatening she has no right to her own faith identity in such a conservative state. Yuck!

Thankfully, that volunteer was fired, and the SXSW organizers offered an apology stating they would never want to make their guests feel that way, and how embarrassed they were for how she was treated. While we are glad they did this, we are even more thrilled to hear the way Ibtihaj acknowledges her role in the face of such opposition: “you have to shrug off those moments because they’re commonplace when they really shouldn’t be…there may be internet trolls out there who don’t have positive things to say, but…I just try to lead every day with love and if that means choosing not to see the negative then that’s what I do.”

This is the kind of visibility and messaging we want to see more of, especially in a time in our political and cultural landscape where there is so much hate directed toward the (international) Muslim community (which is comprised of 1.6 billion believers, by the way).

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With disgusting rhetoric being spouted by certain current Presidential candidates, major catastrophic events happening globally, some at the hands of extremists claiming a religious agenda, and the general lack of awareness due to the 24 hours news cycle which is not always fair and balanced, we need to be vigilant citizens in spreading the right information and being a more educated society.

Toward the end of 2015, Donald Trump tweeted a comment about President Obama’s remark defending the Muslims in our country in the wake of the San Bernadino mass shooting at the hands of a religious extremist.

“Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?” the Donald tweeted.

In response, Fusion.com published this brilliant comeback article listing 38 famous athletes who also happen to be Muslim. The list included Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Mike Tyson, Larry Johnson, Zinedine Zidane and many more. The ignorance is astounding, but sadly not out of place in today’s world.

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“I want to compete in the Olympics for the United States to prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals — not race, religion or gender. I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance,” said Ibtihaj.

“It’s a struggle to be a Muslim woman right now. For all Muslims in our country. We are at an interesting crossroads I think. It could get bad here. There are a lot of African-American athletes, but I can’t think of a female Muslim woman I can look to for inspiration as an athlete. Being an African-American Muslim woman, I can be that change,” she told CNN.

Athletes like her are going to represent more than just Team USA in the fencing event, she is representing a country that is made up of every nationality, religion, ability, and ethnicity there is. That is the image we want to present to the world, not some homogenous ideal that was around 50 years ago.

“Qualifying for the Olympic team and representing our country in Rio this summer means so much not just for me and my family, but for the Muslim community,” she told The Players Tribune.

We cannot wait for August to roll around and see how else our girl Ibtihaj is going to continue breaking barriers in her career and for her country! In the meantime, hear what she has to say about her historic selection below:

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