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Ibtihaj Muhammad: “It’s Important to Have Muslim Women Be Shown in a Different Light” 

Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia April 2019

Ibtihaj Muhammad had the world at her feet, fresh from winning a bronze medal for the US in the team sabre fencing competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She had made international headlines as the first American to compete at the Games in a hijab and the first Muslim-American woman to win a medal. But for Muhammad, the experience was “psychological warfare.”

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she admits. “It’s like going to work every day with people who don’t like you, who don’t want you there… People who were doing what they can to not only throw obstacles in your path, but also to ensure that you don’t believe in yourself.”

While a member of the US fencing team, she endured years of mistreatment from teammates and staff. She believes prejudice lies at the heart of it. “When you face discrimination and bigotry, you don’t stop and ask the person, ‘What don’t you like about my skin, or is it because I’m a woman, or is it because I wear hijab?’ I do know that my mistreatment was disproportionate to my teammates,” she says. “If you have a team of four people and one person isn’t invited to team practice, one person’s flight isn’t booked, one person doesn’t get a hotel, and it becomes a recurring thing over the course of eight years, it makes you question why it’s happening.”

Muhammad chronicles the highs and lows of her Olympian journey in her new book, Proud: Living My American Dream. In it, she also gives an honest account of her life, including her battle with depression. “I wrote it with the youth in mind,” she explains. “I wanted them to feel inspired by my story. I’m just a girl from Jersey who chose to work hard. I genuinely don’t think I’m special, I just want the youth out there to know that they can have the same thing with hard work.”

Muhammad began fencing at 13. Her mother was eager for her to compete in a sport that would allow her to still be modest, and it fit the bill. Initially, as the only black child in the class, and the only hijabi in competitions, she struggled to fit in. Another fencer’s parent suggested she look up black fencers in New York, which led her to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a non-profit organization started by the 1988 Olympic medalist to promotes fencing in underserved communities. “For the first time, I was seeing fencing at a high level,” says Muhammad, who was hoping the sport would get her a scholarship to further her studies. As one of five siblings, she’s always been competitive, yet she never considered that fencing could be a profession, let alone one that would see her stand on an Olympic podium.

Originally published in the April 2019 issue for Vogue Arabia

Photographed by Ziga Mihelcic for Vogue Arabia April 2019

Resilient and tenacious, Muhammad refuses to just tick the boxes expected by society – yet it wasn’t easy growing up as a member of a religious minority. “We were one of the only Muslim families in our town. For a long time I was one of the only hijabis at school, I was the only hijabi at Duke University in North Carolina. I remember kids calling my hijab a tablecloth, and I’ve had people tug at it. I often feel like I’m a square fitting into certain space. As a result, from a young age, I learned that you have to love myself when you know bullies and trolls don’t.”

Her Olympic achievements coincided with the election of Donald Trump, thrusting Muhammad onto a platform representing the Muslim community. “It was one of the greatest moments in my life,” she says. “Not just for Muslims in America, but globally. Representation is so important for us – to push back against this dark narrative that’s historically been created about the Muslim community. It’s important to have Muslim women be shown in a different light – something we haven’t seen before.”

Muhammed has become a role model – she even has her own Barbie, complete with sabre, fencing mask, and hijab. “I live for this doll,” she says proudly. “I played with Barbies for a long time growing up, and one of the tough things about being a kid with Barbies was that I didn’t always have the option of having ones that looked like me. It was great to help Mattel become more inclusive, to push this agenda of diversity.” She also helped Nike develop its Pro Hijab. “When it was being released at the Nike headquarters in Oregon with the big execs, I was almost in tears trying to explain to them how meaningful this small piece of fabric is to me as a Muslim woman, and as a professional athlete. I wear it every time I work out.”

Four years ago, she also launched a modest fashion label, Louella, with three of her siblings. They use female manufacturers and employ women in Los Angeles. “It was born out of necessity, as there wasn’t anyone else in the US who was doing modest fashion affordably, and to me that was fashion-forward. It’s rewarding to be able to fill a void within a community.” With a mantra of “may your faith always be greater than your fears,” Muhammed lives each day believing that you should use your gifts to be an agent of change. “We are all born with something that God has given us and we owe it to ourselves to discover what that gift is, and to change our families, our communities, and the world. I truly believe our purpose is to leave a positive mark on the world.”

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Photo: Ziga Mihelcic
Style: Mohammad Hazem Rezq

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