The Olympic medal-winning fencer talks to Al Jazeera about faith, representation and Islamophobia.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made history in 2016 by becoming the first U.S. team member to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab.
It was a year in which anti-Muslim sentiment rose in the country as then-candidate Donald Trump spoke of a so-called “Muslim ban.”
In a new episode of Generation Sport, Muhammad told Al Jazeera that this put her in an uncomfortable spotlight compared to her teammates as she was asked to comment on Trump and his views.
“I definitely had concerns about answering these questions,” she said, “but I felt like this was my opportunity to dispel a lot of stereotypes that people have about the Muslim community, about where we come from and how we are look.”
Before qualifying for the Rio Olympics, where she won a bronze medal, Muhammad graduated from Duke University, where she was an active student-athlete on the fencing team, and during her time there decided to switch from medical school to graduate school International Relations and African American Studies.
“I feel like I owe it to the people before me to know about my own history, my heritage, and those beautiful moments that created not only me, but the existence of my people.”
This exposure to African-American history as a student paved the way for Muhammad to find her own path as a Muslim African-American athlete and to find her purpose as an athlete.
“It’s easy to get lost in this hustle and bustle of life where you can be so focused on yourself,” she said. “Through exercise and learning about the history of people like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and Althea Gibson, I had the opportunity to understand that my journey is bigger than myself and that I can actually use my platform to create meaningful change if I can decide for it.” .
In this episode of Generation Sport, @IbtihajMuhammad and host @ImaniAmrani explore some of the challenges of being a visibly Muslim woman in the post-9/11 US.
Hear Ibtihaj’s story and reflections on overcoming discrimination.
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– Generational Change (@AJEGenChange) September 18, 2023
In order to even compete in the Olympics, Muhammad had to break down external barriers she faced because of her race and religion, but she also spoke of having to overcome internal struggles with depression and performance anxiety.
Since winning her medal at the 2016 Olympics, she has published her autobiography detailing these experiences, as well as two children’s books, and continues her modest clothing line, Louella, aimed at fashion-conscious Muslim women, which she continues to use her platform for advocacy by Hijabi women.
“Historically, the world has been obsessed with the hijab for some reason,” she says. “I think it’s rooted in racism. I think it has its roots in Islamophobia. It’s not really about the hijab.”
With her work and projects taking her around the world, she also feels connected to Muslim communities and their struggles outside the United States. She now has fewer concerns about speaking out on issues related to Islamophobia and Muslim communities in other countries.
“As a Muslim you obviously feel very, very connected to what is happening in Palestine and in China [with the treatment of Uighur Muslims]or the recent police murder in France, I happened to be there.”
The killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by police in Paris on June 27 sparked unrest in France this summer and left Mohammed reflecting on the problems of police brutality that have also led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States.
“I think if we start caring more and try to force policy changes and hold police accountable, this won’t happen to us as often. But we have to do something to shake the room and wake us up. That’s not normal”.
Generation Sport with Ibtihaj Muhammad, presented by Iman Amrani, was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English on September 17, 2023.