Ibtihaj Muhammad is an American sabre fencer and member of the United States fencing team. She is the first Muslim woman to compete for the United States in international competition. She captured a bronze medal in the women’s sabre team event at the 2011 World Fencing Championships held in Catania, Italy, competed in the 2010 World Fencing Championships in Paris, France and attended the 2011 XVI Pan American Games where she won the gold medal in the women’s sabre team event. She is also a 2-time United States National Champion.
MH: Not a lot of Americans are familiar with the sport of fencing. What got you into fencing?
Early on, my parents always encouraged us to participate in sports. They felt that engaging in sports provided us with opportunities to be physically fit and also be active and social in a productive and halal way. I was involved in different sports, including track, tennis, softball, and even volleyball. When it came to uniforms, it was a constant struggle. My mother always had to tweak my uniforms to make them more modest and appropriate for me to wear. My parents saw my desire to compete and wanted to find a sport for me where I could be fully covered.
I discovered fencing for the first time when I was about 12 years old. My mother and I were driving past a local high school and we happened to see the fencing team practicing through the windows. I was attracted to it because I noticed the attire of the players and how they were fully clothed. Fencing presented a unique opportunity for me where I could feel comfortable in my values and participate in sport. I was 13 years old when I joined my high school’s fencing team and from there followed this pursuit to where I am today.
MH: What advice would you give someone whose pursuits may not embrace his/her religion as well as fencing did for you? For instance, someone who may want to pursue a career as a news reporter and faith/wearing a headscarf alienates her?
Had I been discouraged by the lack of minorities involved in fencing when I first gained interest in the sport over a decade ago, (Allah knows best) I wouldn’t be where I am today. I always try to encourage people to set their bar high. Never allow bias to your religion, ethnicity, or your gender hinder you from following your dreams and doing what you love. Anything is possible with hard work, determination, and prayer. Hold tight to theses and you shall not fail with the will of Allah.
MH: Did you ever face any obstacles as a Muslim competitor? As a woman? Which one was a bigger challenge?
Of course, I cannot deny that I have faced discrimination and obstacles throughout my career. However, I feel that comes with being an ethnic and religious minority in the United States. People an be apprehensive when dealing with a Muslim American fencer, but I don’t let that deter me from my goals. I constantly remind myself that I am not only doing this for my self, but Inshallah this will also be beneficial for the Muslims and minorities who come after me. Inshallah I am paving the way for others.
MH: Tell us a bit about your experience with the Peter Westbrook Foundation. What drew you to them?
When I first begin high school fencing in New Jersey, I was one of few African Americans. I remember a parent suggested that I check out the fencing club in Harlem where “black kids” fenced. Initially, I was offended by her remarks. Was I so different from the other NJ fencers that I had to go to NY to find fencers who looked like me? Though I am not sure whether or not her suggestion was meant to be offensive, it did awaken the desire to find African American fencers. As much as I wanted to feel a sense of normalcy in the fencing world, there was the constant reminder that I was a minority.
When I was 17, a senior in high school, my mom took me to the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City. It was the premiere club in NYC, where all the elite level minority level fencers trained. Though I was amazed at the level of talent exhibited by so many of the clubs athlete, it was the comradery and strong sense of family that drew me in.
MH: Do you feel a certain amount of responsibility to Muslims around the world to be a role model and to spread your story in order to counteract the misconceptions many people have of Muslims?
My journey through my fencing career has undoubtedly brought a significant amount of attention to Muslim women in sports. It was never my intention to be a role model, but I have been presented with an unique opportunity to provide other Muslim women courage and the foundation participate in sport. Muslim woman are not common in the sports arena. I hope to break misconceptions and make hijab and sports a common thread of discussion in both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
My hijab brought me to a sport I never would have discovered otherwise. I was exposed to a sport that gave me a foundation to become who I am today. I pray my story reminds Muslim women and youth that nothing should hinder them in their pursuit of reaching their dreams.
MH: In an interview, you mentioned that some people in the fencing community don’t know how to react to you because you are different from them. How did you deal with that?
Alhumdulillah I have been able to accomplish a lot athletically while wearing my hijab. I found a sport that embraces my religious beliefs and my desire to wear the hijab, breaking several stereotypes by excelling in a sport not typical to minorities or Muslim women. I have earned my spot on the United States team and my “seat at the table.”
Earlier in my career off comments about my race and religion might have upset me, but now I know that purpose is much bigger than me. I wear my hijab because of my love for Allah and my commitment to Islam. In such a racially and economically static sport, I am constantly mindful that what I do is for the Muslims and minorities who come after me.
MH: You talk often about your defining principles of hard work, determination, patience, amongst others. Do you think your faith instilled these values in you?
I do believe that Islam instilled values if hard work and patience. Allah (swt) loves that if one does a job he perfects it. I challenge myself everyday to be a better Muslim, daughter, sister, and athlete.
MH: Do you think the biggest problems facing Muslims come from non-Muslims perceptions and treatment of Muslims or are the most imperative issues created within the Muslim community?
I believe the issues Muslim face comes from both non-Muslims and within the Muslim community. It is important that we work together as an ummah to combat the negative stereotypes we all face everyday.
MH: What advice do you have for girls who wear hijab who want to pursue sports but receive backlash from both the Muslim and non-Muslim communities?
For me, my hijab has become an integral part of who I am as a person. It is extremely important to be confident in yourself and in your faith. Never allow someone else’s misconceptions about you hinder you from reaching your dreams.
MH: Do you feel the focus on the hijab by the media on individuals who do wear it and are successful takes away from their achievements?
Not at all. My hijab has brought much attention to the sport of fencing and awareness in the United States. As the first Muslim woman to represent the United States in international competition, I pray that my story reaches as many people as possible and encourages them dream big. I am thankful every moment of every day for each experience I have had.
MH: When people hear your story, what do you hope they take away from it?
I want other minorities and Muslim women and youth to believe that anything is possible through perseverance. I hope my story inspires them to dream big and never allow their religion, gender, or race to hinder them from accomplishing their goals.