What does it feel like to stand out on your own, stand up for what you believe in, and present yourself to the world as different?
If you’ve been watching the summer Olympics or browsing the internet, you’ve likely heard about Ibtihaj Muhammed, the first female Olympian to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics.
At 30 years old, Ibtihaj has a lot of accomplishments under her belt. She began fencing at 13 years old, when she was in high school. Her parents wanted her to participate in a sport that would not compromise the practices of their Muslim faith, namely her modest attire and wearing a hijab. Fencing turned out to be the perfect sport because she could be fully covered and compete just like anyone else.
Ibtihaj likewise took refuge in her fencing gear, especially because it allowed her to simply be an athlete, rather than put focus on the many facets of her identity – being a black, female Muslim – traits that, unfortunately, come with much undeserved adversity.
Though she has experienced plenty of prejudices and racism, when she’s in her fencing jacket and breeches, she doesn’t stand out because she is black, Muslim, or female. She is an athlete, and stands out because of her skills rather than any physical feature.
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Ibtihaj has been on the US National Fencing Team sine 2010 and is now a 5-time world championship Senior World medalist, ranks number 2 in the U.S. and number 8 in the world, and needless to say, qualified for Rio earlier this year.
According to the Huffington Post, “Muhammad won her first match Monday but was defeated in the Round of 16, meaning there will be no individual medal for her in Rio.”
She may not have won gold, but the inspiration she’s sparked doesn’t stop at her athletic achievements.
As a young Muslim girl, Ibtihaj admits that she didn’t have any female Muslim athletes to look up to as a role model, as she told CNN,
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.
That will no longer be the case, starting with Ibtihaj. Not only has fencing allowed her to demonstrate her exceptional athletic abilities, but she also proudly expresses her religious beliefs while competing in a hijab, which is a head covering worn by some Muslim women as a symbol of modesty and dignity.
Being black, female and Muslim doesn’t come without its hardships. Ibtihaj doesn’t feel safe in America and it’s not hard to imagine why.
She’s been followed home, reported to the police, and even openly confronted, asked if she planned to “blow something up,” simply because of the way she looks.
In light of the abundance of violence connected to acts of terrorism by Islamic extremists in the media, there is no doubt that misinformation has spread like wildfire, creating a stigma about entire Muslim communities.
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However, Ibtihaj hopes that she can start the change she wishes to see in the world,
I’m hopeful that, in my efforts to represent our country well as an athlete — that they change the rhetoric around how people think and perceive the Muslim community.
Not only is Ibtihaj breaking barriers, taking a stand for women and minorities, but she is using her role and position for the greater good, making a bold statement in hopes to change the general perception and break the negative stereotypes that circulate about Muslims. In that, we can already tell she’s won — by starting a movement that’s much more valuable than gold.
Read more about Ibtihaj at Huffington Post.
Want more inspiring stories like this? Check out What the 2016 Olympics Teaches Us About Overcoming Obstacles.