The Rio-bound fencer is the first American to rep Team USA wearing a hijab. We sat down with Muhammad to discuss the challenges for Muslim American athletes and what's ahead
Ibtihaj Muhammad is unlike any other athlete we've seen before—and that's not just because she's one of the best fencers in the world. When Muhammad—an observant Muslim (and one of Time's 100 Most Influential People this year, NBD)—heads to Rio this summer, she'll be the first American to rep Team USA while wearing a hijab. But she's hoping she won't be the last.
"A large part of why I'm so involved in sport has to do with the small numbers of Muslim women who do wear the hijab who are involved in sports at the elite level," explains Muhammad, who has joined VISA's roster of Olympic-bound athletes under the platform of acceptance and inclusion. (Check out other Muslim women in sports in our 20 Iconic Sports Moments Featuring Female Athletes.)
"I remember in 2011 someone mentioned to me that I was the first Muslim woman to wear the hijab to represent Team USA on the international stage. With qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team, I wanted to further challenge that notion that Muslim girls and women don't participate in sports or aren't involved in sports at the elite level. I wanted Muslim girls to know they can be a part of Team USA."
Muhammad explains ignorance is a huge issue Muslim women—especially young girls—face in this country. "In American society, we're not necessarily always aware of the harassment and bullying that Muslim girls in particular face day-to-day in school for wearing the hijab," she says.
"I know that even for myself growing up it was very, very difficult to be different from everyone else and to wear the hijab and then on top of that be involved in a sport where it's historically a lot of white men," she says. "I looked different from everyone else so I wasn't automatically accepted and I was challenged because of my race and my ethnicity. That's something I've been challenged with for my entire career."
She goes on to explain that "it's not just about wearing a piece of cloth on your head," but rather always being out of uniform in a sense—"if your teammates wear shortsleeves, you wear longsleeves, and if they wear shorts, you wear pants. You are constantly being questioned for being different and it can be really difficult. A lot of times, it's a deterrent for a lot of Muslim women to even try to be on sports teams."
Even as an elite athlete, Muhammad is no stranger to blatant discrimination (which she also calls out on her Twitter account)—she recalls that she was even asked to remove her hijab just a few months ago at SXSW in Texas. "My initial reaction was to laugh. I thought maybe he was kidding at first. But he continued, even when I explained it was for religious reasons, he kept saying, 'Well, everyone needs to remove their hat,' essentially like I wasn't special," she says in the video below.
Still, when asked if she sees the future changing, she says yes—she's received countless messages from Muslim girls thanking her for encouraging them to continue playing on their basketball team or keep running track, she says. And, there have been small steps forward, like Danish sportswear brand Hummel creating soccer jerseys with built-in hijabs.
For now, athletes like Muhammad or the Australian teen determined to become the first ballerina in a hijab and other stereotype-shattering Muslim athletes might be the exception to the norm, but these history-making women are undoubtedly paving the way for future Muslim American athletes to come. (Meet the refugee athletes making Olympic history.)
"I think that if girls can see that there are other Muslim women who have done it successfully, that will change the rhetoric," Muhammad says.