Mount Olympus Dons Hijab: Ibtihaj Muhammad and Her Quest For Gold

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US fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad
US fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad

Maryam Ismail profiles the feisty US fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad who is set to be the first Muslim woman in hijab to represent the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympics, as US President Barack Obama recently announced during his visit to Baltimore mosque  

MARYAM ISMAIL | Caravan Daily

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is a hadith that says, Allah loves consistency and Ibtihaj Muhammad has been consistent in working towards her goal of making it to the United States Olympic Fencing Team.

“I didn’t make it into 2012 games, do you still want to interview me?” came the email from Ibtihaj Muhammed, America’s first hijabi Olympian. It was clear she was disappointed. She had worked hard, and won many medals.

Yet, it had not been written for her to be a part of the 2012 games. Undaunted, she kept at it. And while everyone is celebrating her achievement as the first hijabi representing the United State of America in the 2016 Rio de Janiero Olympics, no one is asking how did she get to be so determined and focused not to give up and work more than a decade to achieve her dream? What kind of skills and personality does it take?

Hers was not an easy journey. I first met Ibtihaj in 1997, when she was in seventh grade at Maplewood Middle School, where I was a teacher.  She was not the only Muslim in the school, but she was the only hijab wearing one. Even back then, she was serious. She was in English honors and refused to let her teacher, Mr. Cohen, call her Ibti. “Why can’t I, her name is too long,” he once complained to me. “That is not her name,” I told him. “It’s Ibtihaj.”

This was the kind of strength that she had. She refused to let anyone diminish her sense of self.  This kind of confidence comes from a strong family bond. And the glue that bonded her family together was Ibtihaj’s mother, Inayah Muhammad.

US fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad shows off her jersey.
US fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad shows off her jersey.

I would often see Inayah at school waiting to meet a teacher or the principal. She was always there for her kids. While doing research on African American women in Islam, I interviewed, Inayah about her life in Islam and it was then, that she told me about her transition from the Nation of Islam to ‘Orthodox’ Islam as she called it.

Like Malcolm X who realized that the religious teachings of the Elijah Muhammad were wrong, instead of leaving Islam altogether, she made the shift from one world to the next. “We learned how to pronounce our names properly, learned to pray and know about the basics of Islam. It was a challenge, but we stuck with it,” she told me. Hence, Ibtihaj was born into a family that holds Islam dear.

While the New Jersey school sports scene has had their share of hijabi team players, there are mostly on the track field. There girls would wear their shorts over sweatpants and T-Shirts over long sleeved tops. But when it came to fencing, the uniform fully covered the body and that was the first appeal. “I don’t know what that sport is, but you are doing that,” Inayah told her daughter.

Fencing, with its coverall uniform was a perfect fit for Ibtihaj as an American Muslim teen. Ibtihaj also said: “There were five of us and sports was a way of getting scholarships into college.” It’s quite amazing how through her desire to follow the obligations of Islam, that she now becomes so successful from it.

Being Muslim in any public school in the US is difficult, but being the only one identifiably Muslim is even more difficult. Some teachers who make racists swipes behind the backs of the children they taught like, about being deprived of Christmas, or Indo-Pak families only care about money. Still, it was these children of that fasted at the age of 12 in the midst of schoolmates who didn’t. “Teacher, I am hungry,” little Murshid would say to me. “Me too.” I would reply. We were fasting together.

However, Ibtihaj was still lucky; there wasn’t much overt discrimination, especially from the students and the administration, which even made allowances for fasting students to sit lunch out in the library if they needed to. At Columbia High School where Ibtihaj began fencing, the Muslim students had a Juma prayer on Fridays. Still, one of this could not have happened without the parents of these young Muslims who where not afraid to show themselves and stand up for their beliefs.

There are actually two hijabis on the US team. Recently, Ibtihaj’s younger sister, Faiza who ranks No. 6 while Ibtihaj ranks No. 2. The two of them are doing Muslims worldwide proud. InshaAllah, I am praying that she wins a gold in Rio. Her work is a testament to her mother’s work and the need to help our children have a strong Muslim identity to help them achieve their goals. Whether she gets a gold or not, Ibtihaj Muhammad is still a winner and a champion of many Muslim women and girls around the globe.

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