One of the most prominent faces and impassioned voices of this summer’s U.S. Olympic team will be hidden behind a mask. There’s irony there, for sure. The mask, after all, is what attracted Ibtihaj Muhammad to fencing in the first place.
Muhammad tried other sports: volleyball, softball, tennis. The other kids teased her for looking different, for wearing a headscarf called a hijab on her head while competing. “I wanted to find a sport where I could be fully covered and I didn’t have to look different,” she said. She gravitated toward fencing because the mask was the great equalizer: Slip it on and all competitors look the same.
Times have changed. Muhammad has grown up. A proud Muslim American, the 30-year-old Muhammad still wears a hijab — in fact, in Rio de Janeiro she will become the first American to compete in an Olympics while wearing one — but she’s eager to take off the mask, set down her sabre and make her voice heard. The political discourse and bubbling anger that have swept through large swaths of the country have unfairly targeted Muslim Americans, she says, and Muhammad wants to use her Olympic platform to combat the rhetoric.
“I have to challenge this idea that in some way we don’t belong because of our race or our religion,” she said recently.
And so she has taken off the mask. She was a guest on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She has met with President Obama. She has made the media rounds to discuss the Rio Games and is helping promote Los Angeles’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics. And everywhere Muhammad goes, she is not holding back.
“I’ve been blessed with this position and to be given this platform,” she said. “When I think of my predecessors and the people who spoke out against bigotry and hate, I feel like I owe it not just to myself but to my community to try to fight it.”
A native of Maplewood, N.J., Muhammad was still in high school when she walked into Peter Westbrook’s fencing club in Manhattan. Westbrook is a five-time Olympian who made it a life goal to share the sport with underserved inner-city communities. In Muhammad, he saw a young fencer who was packed with potential but needed the sport as an emotional outlet.
In those early days, Muhammad was a whirlwind of emotions and ambition.
“It was all over the place,” Westbrook said, “meaning she didn’t know how to funnel that into success. Sometime you don’t know how to use obstacles to help you. You let them take the wind out of your sails, the breath out of your lungs. A lot of things bothered her, but she wasn’t able to use that as a springboard to success.”
Muhammad began channeling those feelings and frustrations into the sport. If she was having a rough day, she could slip on the mask and would be an absolute fury on the strip. It wasn’t long before she was beating her young peers, then adult men, then her instructors. The Peter Westbrook Foundation serves a diverse population, but as Muhammad began traveling for competitions, she was noticed for her talents but also for the ever-present hijab.
“Going through airports, oh man, she’s always the only one in the group that has to go through a ‘random’ check,” said her coach, Akhi Spencer-El. “Then we get to these tournaments, and you never know when you’re dealing with a person who might have bad feelings toward Muslims. And you think: That’s who’s deciding if you move on to the next round?
“In the beginning, it was really tough for her. She had to fight her way and prove to the world that she’s just as good, that she should be treated just like anybody else.”
Just last month, Muhammad was at the registration desk for the South by Southwest festival in Austin, when she was asked to remove her hijab to take a photograph for her identification badge. As always, she refused, citing her religious customs. (Event organizers later apologized: “We are embarrassed by this and have apologized to Ibtihaj in person, and sincerely regret this incident,” they said in a statement.)
Westbrook says those experiences and resulting emotions tend to help Muhammad on the strip. They steel her nerves, quell her fears and wind her up before a competition so she’s ready to pounce on any foe.
“She’s so perseverant, so hard-willed,” said Westbrook, who became the first African American to win an Olympic fencing medal at the 1984 Games. “I’m telling you, she eats nails. I always tell people, ‘Don’t get fooled by that pretty face.’ ”
And in turn, that ferocity Muhammad feels wearing a fencing mask gives her courage when the opponent is more abstract.
Muhammad doesn’t go out of her way to delve into political discussions or wade into election-cycle debates. At times, though, she feels she has no choice. In a December speech from the Oval Office, Obama said, “Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes.” Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, took to Twitter to say, “What sport is he talking about, and who?”
Muhammad had proved herself as one of the world’s top sabre fencers. She was weeks away from qualifying for Rio and had made headlines for wearing a hijab at tournaments around the world. She tweeted, “Friends don’t let friends like Trump.” She was even more pointed in an interview with Time magazine: “If Donald Trump had his way, America would be white, and there wouldn’t be any color and there wouldn’t be any diversity.”
Accustomed to anti-Muslim attitudes, she tries to avoid hateful social media messages as best she can and is particularly cautious when traveling. But when she encounters bluster about where Muslims should or shouldn’t live, it’s tougher to tune out — or make sense of.
“This is my home; this is who I am,” she said. “My family has always been here. We’re American by birth. It’s a part of who I am. This is all that I know. So when I hear someone say something like, ‘We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,’ it’s like, ‘Where am I going to go? I’m an American.’ ”
Muhammad was a double major at Duke in international relations and African studieswith a minor in Arabic. She prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and adjusts her training schedule accordingly. Along with her siblings, she has launched a clothing line featuring women’s wear that’s stylish, colorful and modest. Her outspokenness isn’t about her, she said; it’s about a larger community.
Her mission away from competition is three-fold: to combat, educate and inspire. She takes aim at lazy stereotypes, strives to introduce a positive image of Muslim Americans and hopes the next generation of Muslim women feel empowered to pursue sports.
“I’ve grown tired of seeing the same image of women that to me is not representative of Muslim women that I know that live here in the States. . . . I think it’s very narrow in scope,” she said. “It may be a woman in all black, a woman in niqab, a woman in burka. Like within any religion, Muslims have conservatives, we have liberals, and we have everything in between. To paint all Muslims with one broad stroke can be frustrating.”
“When I look at specifically the Muslim community — the south Asian community, for example or the Arab community — sports is not always encouraged amongst the young women,” she said. “I would love that it be a part of their daily lives. . . . One of the tenets of our faith, for example, is take care of your body. I think that’s most important.”
Muhammad will attend this weekend’s fencing national championships in Richmond, though she won’t be competing. She’s slated to participate in three more tournaments before Rio, traveling to China, Russia and Panama for final Olympic tuneups in the coming months.
Between now and the Summer Games, she will continue training and taking advantage of the platform the Olympics provide. It’s already earned her influential audiences. In February, she was an invited guest when Obama made his first visit to a mosque as president, participating in a roundtable discussion beforehand.
“I told her to bring home the gold,” Obama said later in his speech, prompting laughter throughout the mosque. “Not to put any pressure on you.”