When she fences, no one can tell that Ibtihaj Muhammad is wearing a headscarf.
That was the whole point. Growing up in New Jersey, Muhammad’s after-school schedule was a round robin of youth sports: swimming, volleyball, tennis, softball, track. But she always seemed to stand out on the court, field or pool deck, because her religion prevented her from wearing a uniform that didn’t cover her arms, legs and head. She was teased, even harassed.
Then, while driving past the local high school, she and her mother saw some girls fencing. The older woman turned to her daughter and said, “I don’t know what that is, but when you get to high school, you’re doing it,” she recalled to the Wall Street Journal.
Now 30, Muhammad is set to be the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab. And while competitors in other sports have had to fight to be able to dress according to their religion — FIFA didn’t officially allow soccer players to wear hijabs and turbans until 2014, and in 2012 the International Volleyball Federation changed its rules that required players to wear bikinis after some countries lobbied for a less revealing uniform — Muhammad deftly worked her way up the international fencing rankings without having to defend the way she dresses.
Which is why an incident at South by Southwest, where she was due to speak on a panel Saturday evening, was so frustrating.
Muhammad said that she explained to the volunteer that she wore the scarf for religious reasons, but he insisted she could not wear it for her ID photo.
Eventually, she was issued a badge, that showed her in her scarf — but it had the wrong name.
South by Southwest later apologized for the incident.
“It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge,” organizers said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune. “This was one volunteer who made an insensitive request and that person has been removed for the duration of the event. We are embarrassed by this and have apologized to Ibtihaj in person, and sincerely regret this incident.”
At her panel, “The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life,” Muhammad told the audience that experiences like that were still all-too common for her.
“Someone asking me to remove my hijab isn’t out of the norm for me,” she said, according to the Tribune. “Do I hope it changes soon? Yes, every day.”
Muhammad was a member of the United States’ 2014 world champion fencing team and is ranked seventh in the world in her discipline, sabre. With her siblings, she also runs a women’s clothing line called Louella, which specializes in clothing that fits the strictures of both Islam and contemporary fashion.
Almost since she began fencing, Muhammad has been an ambassador for Muslim women cloaked in the helmet and full-body uniform of a fencer. The sport was overwhelmingly white where she grew up — often, she was the only African American athlete at a tournament, let alone the only one in a headscarf.
“There were no role models,” she told the New Yorker magazine. When I competed in local tournaments, there were often comments about me — being black, or being Muslim. It hurt.”
Then, just across the river from the high school classroom where Muhammad sat in advanced placement English, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell. The night of September 11, 2001, there was an air of panic in their home, Muhammad recalled. The family knew that something fundamental had changed.
“9/11 impacted everyone,” Her mother, Denise Muhammad, told the New Yorker. “The children were ostracized and targeted. People shouted at me when I drove down the street.”
Muhammad kept her head down and kept fencing. She was connected with the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a program founded by former fencing champion Peter Westbrook to teach the sport to kids in underserved communities in the New York area.
“Don’t be fooled by that pretty face. She has something in her that it takes in real champions, that unbelievable will to win,” Westbrook, who in 1984 became the first African American to win an Olympic medal in fencing, told the Associated Press. “She is able to dig five stories deep to pull something out. And when she loses? Oh, my God.”
For college, she got a scholarship to Duke University, where she studied international relations, African studies and Arabic and took up the sabre, the fastest and — some might say — fiercest of the three fencing disciplines. Sabre competition is like something out of an Errol Flynn movie — all lightning fast slashes of steel.
”It’s the closest representation of who I am,” Muhammad told the New York Times last month. ”I’m very aggressive, that’s who I am.”
This is true outside competition, particularly when Muhammad thinks she is being treated unfairly because of her faith. When she is questioned at airports about the heavy gear in her bag — or the scarf on her head — her first impulse is to protest.
But her father, Eugene, a retired police officer, cautions her: “The more you [protest], the more you have to take off,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.
So Muhammad has channeled her outrage beyond the airport security line. After the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., sparked a wave of anti-Muslim backlash, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech suggesting that Muslims be barred from entering the U.S., she tweeted:
“I feel like I’ve been blessed to be in this position, to be given this platform. When I think of my predecessors, and people who’ve spoken out against bigotry and hate, I feel like I owe it not just to myself but to my community to try to fight it,” Muhammad told the Associated Press. “There are people who don’t feel safe going to work every day, that don’t feel safe being themselves. I think that’s a problem.”
Last month, she attended President Obama’s speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore — his first ever visit to an American mosque as president — and found herself singled out from the audience of hundreds.
“When Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue will a fencing champion, wearing her hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad,” he said. “Stand up.”
As Muhammad stood, and the audience applauded, he said, “I told her to bring home the gold.” Then the president focused his gaze on the fencer, “Not to put any pressure on you,” he added.
Later in the speech, Obama sought to assure Muslims: “There are voices in this world, particularly over the Internet, who are constantly claiming that you have to choose between your identities — a Muslim, for example, or an American. Do not believe them. If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as president of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too.”
In February, Muhammad qualified for this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro when she won bronze at the Athens World Cup. For a while afterward, the achievement didn’t feel real to her, she told the AOL program “Build.”
“I was just like, ‘Well, one more thing off the checklist,'” she said. “I was thinking about, you know, scheduling massage appointments when I got back home, scheduling time with my physical therapist, stuff like this.”
But for Muslim women watching, like Edina Lekovic — a director at the Muslim Public Affairs Council — the significance of the moment was immediately clear.
“I was jumping up and down, and immediately starting texting friends and calling family members,” Lekovic told Time. “This is such a moment of pride and progress, and there’s no going back.”