When Ibtihaj Muhammad and her mother drove around their Maplewood, N.J. hometown years ago, they noticed a group of high schoolers covered head to toe participating in some kind of athletic duel.
They never saw anything like that before, but the uniform was intriguing enough for Muhammad’s mother to know exactly what sport her smart and athletic daughter would participate in come high school time.
What they saw was fencing, a tactful and calculated sword fighting sport. The uniform consists of a full body suit and even a mask that covers the face. For the young hijabi Muhammad who was facing issues with her basketball and volleyball uniforms as she grew older, fencing provided a great option. No uniform modifications were needed.
Skip ahead to more recent years, and Ibtihaj Muhammad has now become a household name. She was famous already in the Muslim community, as a star hijabi fencer. She gained mainstream prominence, however, during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil as the first American athlete to compete on the Olympic stage in a hijab and the first one to bring home a medal. Viewers tuned in worldwide to see her compete in her fencing matches and represent a country, which at the time had a very important presidential election around the corner. Candidate Donald Trump spewed anti-Muslim rhetoric during his campaign, and threw other minorities under the bus. But despite this, Muhammad, an African American hijab-wearing Muslim woman walked alongside athletes in red, white, and blue with a huge American flag representing their country. She, and those who looked like her, were just as American as anyone else.
With all the hoopla surrounding Rio 2016, Muhammad made appearances on popular television programs including The Today Show, Ellen, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. She displayed her fencing prowess and talked about her hijab, and for Muslims everywhere it was a real sight to see and take in. In the midst of all the hate and fear-mongering chatter in the political sphere, a Black hijabi Muslim woman was being celebrated. Finally!
In 2017, Muhammad shattered even more glass ceilings when major brand Barbie announced the production of a doll in the Olympian’s honor as a part of their Shero campaign. The doll features her Team USA fencing uniform with her last name “Muhammad” in bold letters across the back. The doll is also in a hijab—a first for the stylish Mattel icon—and built similar to Muhammad’s athletic body type. With Trump almost a year into his presidency at the time, hate crimes were on the rise against minorities, and white supremacist groups were coming out from the shadows. But Muhammad’s achievement was a win for the many communities she represents at an otherwise very frightening time in our country. Kids and adults alike of all skin tones, sizes, and faiths were able to see an accomplished Black Muslim woman celebrated.
Since her debut as a Barbie, Muhammad has also released a book entitled Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, performed the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah, and continued seeing success in her modest clothing line, Louella.
She epitomizes grace not only in her fencing matches, but in her media interviews, in her writing, in her fashion, and in her overall demeanor. She is a role model for so many that see something in her that they see in themselves, whether that be their race, religion, gender, or even sheer ambition and dedication. She is a pillar of the American Muslim community today, celebrated from her hometown in Maplewood all the way to Los Angeles and everywhere else in between.