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Ibtihaj Muhammad: First U.S. Athlete To Wear Hijab in the Olympics?

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This post originally appeared in the Women's Media Center's Exclusives section at:
http://womensmediacenter.com/blog/2011/11/exclusive-in-fencers-hijab%E2%80%94struggle-and-inspiration/

As Ibtihaj Muhammad competes for a spot on the U.S. Women's Olympic team as a sabre fencer, she is also vying to make history, as most likely the first U.S. representative wearing a headscarf in the games. It's not a role she set out to play, but after struggling with the attention that her hijab has brought her over the years, she's game.

"I think my motto in this whole experience is that sports is something you can do in hijab, and you shouldn't let your faith compromise how athletically gifted you become. Just like race or gender, religion should not hinder you from achieving your goals," said Ibtihaj, 25.

It's a powerful message and one she is being asked to deliver with increasing frequency these days. Since the press caught wind of her potential history-making appearance at the Olympics, she's been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, Essence magazine, ESPN.com, and even invited to the join Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a Ramadan celebration. Though the Olympic Committee does not collect demographic data, it is widely believed that she would be the first Muslim woman in hijab to represent the United States at the games in any sport, a statement that has not been disputed, according to USA Fencing Communications Manager Nicole Jomantas.

Ibtihaj and I were classmates together at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. We had one of the largest fencing programs in the nation, and I also tried it, but moved on to the literary magazine and drama club after my freshman year. Ibtihaj stuck with athletics. When I read about her Olympic aspiration I was intrigued, but not surprised: Ibtihaj has always been determined and confident in the classroom and on the fencing strip.

When I spoke to Ibtihaj about her fencing journey recently, she said that being a role model was never her intent when she began to spar at age 14. Instead, she was trying to marry her enthusiasm for sports with the impending challenges of puberty as a Muslim woman.

"I knew once I got to high school I would have to change the way I looked when I played sports and I couldn't just join swim team," Ibtihaj recalled. She and her mother came upon fencing practice in the Columbia High School cafeteria during Ibtihaj's last year of middle school. Her mother instantly understood the significance of finding a sport with modest dress for Ibtihaj and her athletic sisters. "My mom literally said, 'I don't know what that is, but when you get to high school I want you to try it.'"

After an awkward trial fencing lesson with the team's male coach ("he had to ask my dad if he could touch me to help show me the right positions"), Ibtihaj joined the team, fencing the epee weapon for her first two years. She also played volleyball and wore a more modest uniform than her teammates -- sweatpants and a t-shirt instead of spandex shorts and a tank top.

"Although you want to think to yourself that your team accepts you, how accepted could I be, when even my volleyball teammates sometimes made comments about how I was dressed?" she said, remembering those uncomfortable moments. "So I wondered how I appeared to other teams when they're looking at me -- the one whose uniform is really different."

The issue was moot in fencing.

"Everyone had to dress the same way. We had to wear knickers and long socks and long sleeves. It was the first time that I was on a team and felt like I was really part of it."

Ibtihaj also hoped fencing would help her get her into a good college, and she was right. She studied African American studies, international relations and Arabic at Duke University, and fenced her first three years. But going from a diverse high school where she was one of a handful of African American fencers to a college where she was the only one was difficult. In high school she sometimes felt discriminated against by the odd referee and occasionally received unwanted attention for her scarf, but she always had plenty of African American and Muslim friends by her side. Now she was on her own in many situations.

"I can't even explain how difficult it was," she recalled. "It was socially tough in general, but then joining a fencing team where it was just me and one other minority fencer was hard."

She currently practices at the Fencers' Club in Manhattan and is vying for one of two women's sabre spots on the Olympic team. She has never wanted anything more in her life. Ibtihaj is currently ranked 22nd in the world in her weapon and second in the United States, and she must beat out several other contenders to secure her place on the U.S. team. Now, she is pursuing the goal both as an athlete who loves her sport and as a Muslim woman showing the world that a woman in hijab belongs anywhere -- including the Olympic games.

"It can be hard to imagine yourself as an Olympic athlete because of the way you dress" as a Muslim woman, she said. "But I'm hoping this opens the door for Muslim girls to imagine themselves in this space. If this message reaches anyone, even one person, it will be worth it."

She has already reached many: Ibtihaj has more than 5,300 Facebook fans, many of whom praise Allah for her success on her wall. But, while she hasn't received much overt criticism, conservative Muslims at her mosque rarely commend her fencing. She imagines they take issue with the lifestyle that comes with her vocation, particularly that she sometimes travels without a chaperone and shakes hands with male referees at matches.

"I know for every person who may feel I am pushing the envelope too much, there is someone out there who is supportive. There are both sides," she says.

Ibtihaj still has her work cut out for her. She won't know officially whether she is headed to the Olympics until March 31. And if she gets there, she'll have an additional hurtle to overcome: the games take place during Ramadan, when she won't be able to eat or drink during the day and will have to wake up several times during the night to hydrate.

Looking back on our experiences in high school -- playing the same sports, taking the same classes -- it never occurred to me how the scarf she wore might have made those already awkward years so much more challenging. Ibtihaj says that she too rarely reflected on it at the time. It's only now, thrust into the spotlight, that she realizes how her hijab has altered her trajectory, bringing her to a sport she loves but never would have discovered otherwise.