“You're not Muslim or American, you're Muslim and American.”
--President Obama visiting a mosque in the suburbs of Baltimore in 2016
There once was a young girl from New Jersey whose parents encouraged her to play sports. While growing up, she tried many different sports including softball, tennis and track. But, given the young lady's beliefs about proper wardrobes – the tenants of her faith required covering her body – the family found it challenging to make clothing adjustments their daughter needed to participate in many of the sports she tried. It was cumbersome to say the least.
Then, her mother drove past a local high school and saw students practicing fencing. Her mother knew nothing about the sport but upon seeing the participants' uniforms, she thought it might be a “good fit” for her daughter. So, the youth began the sport at age 13, and she has never looked back.
Later the girl described the experience to CNN ...
“My mom just so happened to discover fencing. She was driving past a local high school and saw kids with what she thought was like a helmet and like long pants and long jacket. She was like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I want you to try it.'”
The girl I am speaking of is Ibtihaj Muhammad. By the way, her name means “joy.” She was born in Maplewood, New Jersy, and she is a Muslim growing up in America who has remained unwavering in her commitment to her faith. She attended Duke University, where she received an academic scholarship.
Ibtihaj went on to be an NCAA All-American from Duke. In addition, she became a five-time Senior World team medalist and 2014 Senior World Team Champion. She has won both individual and team medals on the World Cup circuit, and she ranked as high as number seven in the world during the 2015-16 season.
Of course, recently the 30-year-old Muhammad attracted great attention and helped put the world spotlight on fencing, a sport that typically garners little publicity, when she made history in Rio as the first U.S. woman to compete in the Olympic Game wearing a hijab – a veil or headscarf worn by some Muslim women to cover the hair and neck.
Muhammad defeated Olena Kravatska of Ukraine 15-13 in her opening bout at Carioca Arena 3 in Rio de Janeiro before bowing out 15-12 to France's Cecilia Berder in the round of 16, missing out on a spot in the quarterfinals.
Ibihaj Muhammad is much more than an Olympian. She is an advocate, an outspoken supporter of diversity, and an entrepreneur. Through it all, her message is clear: Believe you can do anything. She told CNN ...
"I remember as a kid, people telling me as a kid that black people didn't fence. I remember people telling me that Muslims didn't fence. Without that belief and that drive in having strong athletes like Muhammad Ali or like Serena (Williams) and Venus (Williams), without having strong people to look up to when I was a kid and to really face adversity head on, I wouldn't be where I am today, so I'm really appreciative of that.
(Jill Martin. “Muslim fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad set to make U.S. Olympic history in Rio.” CNN. August 03, 2016.)
Muhammad recognized it's not always easy being different, even in a modern world. After all, she is a woman, an African-American, and a Muslim. Yet, in her drive to excel, Ibtihaj feels no bounds. She said, “I am excited to change the stereotypes and and misconceptions people have about Muslim women. I'm hopeful, in my efforts to represent our country well as (being) an athlete – that they change the rhetoric around how people think and perceive the Muslim community.”
Muhammad and her siblings have also created their own clothing line called Louella – named after their grandmother. The company features a wide array of options including dresses, sweaters, jumpsuits, skirts and pants. The line is described as “a new fresh and vibrant look to the modest fashion industry.”
Why did Ibtihaj and her family begin the clothing line? “There weren’t things that me or my friends would wear. We wanted something not that just was modest, we wanted something that was affordable,” Muhammad said.
This sports ambassador, who serves on the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative, is a role model, a flesh-and-blood image image that inspires Muslim American women.
After Muhammad said the following about feeling unsafe in New York due to the country’s increased anti-Muslim rhetoric led by Donald Trump and others, her comments drew xenophobic reactions from many local Facebookers.
Ibtihaj said ...
“[I feel unsafe] all the time. I had someone follow me home from practice and try to report me to police And this is right on 28th and 7th in New York City. I’m very vocal about these things because I want people to know I’m not a novelty, I’m not special in any way. I’m a woman who wears hijab and these are my experiences."
(Jessica Chasmar. “Muslim-American Olympian feels unsafe ‘all the time’ in U.S.” The Washington Times. August 04, 2016.)
Here are some of the posts from local Facebookers about her genuine fear:
- “If that's what she thinks I fell it would be better for
her to fly to Saudi Arabia after the games where she will be safe
among her "own people" as she says.”
- “If you don't like it here, then leave! You are free to go!
- “No one is stopping her from leaving.”
- “There are many times that I haven't felt safe in this
country but if I was representing my county in Rio I would never say
that trying to bring negative attention to my nation--because no
matter how she says it people are automatically going to assume you
are referring to how you are treated because of your religion which
I do not believe is the case.”
- “She lives in a city that saw the biggest terrorist attack
ever on American soil-that was perpetrated by people who wear
hijabs. When people wearing yamakas or Amish dresses begin beheading
people on YouTube or when their spiritual texts say to kill or make
war with unbelievers then I'm sure it would be difficult for them to
live in New York City too.”
- “Why is she trying to make a political statement at the
Olympics? Why the negative Trump rhetoric from her. She is there to
represent the USA not to deface it with her plea for attention. Your
sword fight is over and so is your 15 minutes of fame. Now have fun
going back to the place you live and hate so much after saying all
that crap. I doubt it will be any better for you now. “
- “I had never heard or seen her before this article. Secondly Islam is controversial in World Politics, not just the US. What people is she supposedly representing that does not have voices? Surely not women muslims, that's all I hear about since Hillary decided to run.”
- “Oh I see she is representing women, who in the Muslim Religion aren't afforded the freedom to speak. You would think she would be thankful to be in the US where we have a Constitution that permits that. “
I am appalled that people feel so much anger toward a minority female American, especially one so accomplished and so driven to activism. It is a fact that many people still feel First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression apply only to those with a certain view or with a certain faith. This obvious prejudice towards Muslims – as couched in divisive, falsely patriotic “Love it or leave it” terms – is reprehensible. And yes, the comments also exhibit that prejudice extends to African-Americans and to women in general.
Shouldn't we be praising those who uphold our dearest freedoms of liberty and justice instead of judging their honest fears as faults of their beliefs and heritage? A woman who wears a hijab in New York City surely faces danger and derision from those who equate Muslims with terrorists. But, this is not Ibtihaj Muhammad's intention to create division or fear; rather, she wears her dress to be the American individual she is in a democratic country that must embrace diversity.
Muhammad is a proven champion – a world-class athlete and a tireless crusader for equality. If Americans choose to limit her advancement in any way with unfair criticism of her unique message, then we all lose a portion of the soul of our country. The fabric of America continues to grow stronger through our changing population. Why? Freedom. And freedom knows no dress code or no religion.