Ibtihaj Muhammad grew up in New Jersey in a typical all-American family. Her mother was a special education teacher and her father was a narcotics detective. She had three sisters and one brother, and all four kids were expected to compete in sports. Like many Americans, the family took their religious faith seriously. The Muhammads are African-American Muslims. But the Muhammads had a difficult time “fitting in” to life because people objected to their religious practices, which included all four girls wearing traditional hijabs. The kids remember being pulled out of their classrooms on the morning of 9/11, when their teachers removed them from class and sent them to an isolated room for several hours. The family was ostracized and people yelled at them when walking down the street.
Despite the hardships, the children continued to play sports, largely because their parents believed sports taught good social skills, sportsmanship and community. In high school Muhammad took part in tennis, track, softball, volleyball and eventually fencing. She wore modest clothes like sweatpants while competing, in order to follow Muslim practices requiring women to cover certain areas of their bodies. Muhammad excelled academically and in fencing, winning a scholarship to Duke University, where she became one of America’s best fencers.
Muhammad missed the 2012 Olympics due to a torn hand ligament. However, in the four years since London, she has won and placed in significant competitions, including the team gold medal in the 2013 World Fencing Championships in Russia. Muhammad just qualified to represent the United States in the Summer Olympics in Rio later this summer. She will become the first American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.
Muhammad has become an entrepreneur, working with her siblings to start Louella, a clothing company selling hip versions of modest clothing. Muhammad says she started the company because she thought there was room in the market for clothing that was flattering and fun without being overly revealing. Some of the accessories look like they would be at home on the racks of stores like Charming Charlie and H&M.
Still, Muhammad’s participation in the Olympics is generating plenty of controversy. Her webpage on the Team U.S.A. site has comments from fans calling her “a disgrace” and blaming Muslims for “destroying” the entire world. Muhammad has also been publicly harassed, recounting a recent incident where she and other Muslim friends were harassed in a pizza parlor while police officers stood by and did nothing. The experience makes Muhammad nervous about asking for help from authorities.
Muhammad’s presence on Team U.S.A. during the opening ceremonies, where she will wear her hijab is sure to be one of the most watched news stories of the Olympic games, particularly since it is a presidential election year, where one of the candidates wants to ban Muslim immigrants from entering the United States.
She was recently invited to a gathering of other Muslim American athletes, like basketball players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon. President Obama spoke at the event and recognized her personally. “I told her to bring home the gold,” he said, gesturing toward Muhammad. Despite the pressure of that acknowledgment, Muhammad believes she can represent America proudly and has a great chance to score a medal in Rio.