Aug 5, 2016 is a really significant day. It is the day of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics at Maracana Stadium, Rio De Janeiro. But this is not what the day will be known for. This day will go down in history as the one on which a member of Team USA will be wearing a hijab for the first time ever. The fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim from New Jersey, earned that distinction in late January when she clinched a spot in the Games at a tournament in Athens.
Most of the athletes in the USA stay away from politics because they are afraid that they might end up offending their fans by taking sides. But not Muhammad. She says, “If Donald Trump had his way, America would be white. And there wouldn’t be any color. And there wouldn’t be any diversity here.”
Muhammad, along with her four siblings was raised outside New York City in the New Jersey suburb of Maplewood. Her mother Denise and father Eugene converted to Islam before they met. They encouraged their kids to participate in sports and Ibtihaj was a very competitive child. She used to compete with her brother Qareeb, who is a year older. She says that she owes her athletic drive to her brother because she was always trying to run faster or jump higher than him.
Muhammad’s hijab is a private way of expressing her religious choice, and gaining acceptance in society has not been an easy task for her. Fitting in at the gym where other girls were wearing tank tops and shorts while Muhammad was following the Islamic tradition of modest dressing was quite difficult for her.
At high school fencing meets, Muhammad was often the only African-American. “I remember going to competitions as a kid and people commenting on me being black, me being Muslim,” she recalls. “Parents asking whether or not it was O.K. for me to fence in my hijab if in some way it would jeopardize someone else’s safety. As a child, that can be kind of traumatizing.”
This offhand remark made Muhammad discover Peter Westbrook, a fencer who had won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics and now runs a non-profit fencing club in New York that gives training to kids from nontraditional fencing backgrounds. Soon she found herself commuting regularly to New York and it became her second home.
And now this hijab-wearing, non-traditional woman will represent the USA at the Olympics. History is being made!