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Ibtihaj Muhammad
Alison Buck/Getty Images for Teen Vogue

Ibtihaj Muhammad

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In 2016, fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim woman wearing a hijab to represent the United States at the Olympics. She became the first female Muslim-American athlete to win an Olympic medal when she took home the bronze in the team sabre event at the Summer Games in Rio.

Who Is Ibtihaj Muhammad?

Fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad was born in 1985 in New Jersey. She discovered fencing when she was 13 years old and has gone on to earn numerous medals and accolades for her achievements in the sport. In 2016, she secured a spot on Team USA. In qualifying for the Olympics, Muhammad made history when she became the first Muslim woman who wears a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf, to represent the United States. She became the first female Muslim-American athlete to win an Olympic medal when she took home the bronze in the team sabre event at the Summer Games in Rio.

Early Life

Ibtihaj Muhammad was born on December 4, 1985 in Maplewood, New Jersey. She is one of five children born to parents Eugene and Denise Muhammad. From a young age, Muhammad had a competitive streak and loved sports. However, participating in sports at school sometimes conflicted with her religious observance to dress modestly. Often when playing sports, her mother Denise had to alter the uniforms to add long sleeves or covering for her legs. When she was 13, Muhammad and her mother discovered fencing when they saw a high school fencing team practice as they drove home. "The kids were wearing their long pants and hats, and my mom just thought, 'This is perfect,'" Muhammad said. "That's where it all began." Fencing was an ideal opportunity to participate in sports while wearing a hijab. Unlike when she played other sports, she also did not feel out of place amongst her teammates.

When Muhammad first tried fencing in middle school, she didn’t particularly care for it, but she soon changed her mind. From a practical and financial standpoint, she viewed fencing as an opportunity to obtain a sports scholarship to a prestigious university. She also changed her weaponry from the epée, finding the saber better suited to her personality. (Of the three fencing disciplines, the foil, the epée, and the saber – the saber is considered the fastest and most forceful.) Soon her enthusiasm grew and Muhammad began attending the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a non-profit organization that introduces and teaches the sport of fencing (and life skills) to underprivileged inner-city youth in New York City. There, she met other kids from similar backgrounds and more encouragement to pursue the sport.

Muhammad attended Maplewood’s Columbia High School, where she excelled and became captain of the fencing team for two years and helped win two state championships.

Career Beginnings

Ibtihaj Muhammad attended Duke University on a scholarship. She graduated in 2007 with dual bachelor’s degrees in international relations and African-American studies with a minor in Arabic. During her first year at college in 2004, she earned All-America honors with a record of 49-8. From there, she went on to place second at the mid-Atlantic/South Regional and 21st at the Junior Olympics. The following year, she finished 11th for saber at the NCAA Championships, and earned her second consecutive All-America honors. A third would come in 2006.

"Fencing has taught me so much about myself and what I am capable of. I want to be an example for minority and Muslim youth that anything is possible with perseverance. I want them to know that nothing should ever hinder them from achieving their goals—not race, religion, or gender." - Ibtihaj Muhammad, Duke Magazine, 2011

Muhammad also serves on the council for the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative, which encourages girls across the globe to reach their potential.

Becoming A Champion

In 2009, Muhammad elevated her training when she was coached by the 2000 U.S. Olympian, Akhi Spencer-El. That same year, she won a national title. Since then Muhammad has become a five-time Senior World Team medalist. She helped her team take home gold for the United States in 2014 in Kazan, Russia. Throughout her career, she has earned numerous medals for both team and individual events on the World Cup circuit. In 2012, Muhammad was named Muslim Sportswoman of the year.

“What I loved most about fencing was it allowed me to pursue my desire to be involved in sports, but also allowed me to be myself as Muslim woman.” - Ibtihaj Muhammad, Elle Magazine, 2016

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In 2016, Muhammad earned a spot on the U.S. Saber Fencing Team for the Olympics in Rio. She is the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf, to represent the United States at the Olympics. She has stated that qualifying for an Olympic team means a great deal not only for her and her family, but also for the Muslim community. She is seen as a symbol of promise for a community that sees few Muslim women playing at an elite level of sport. 

At the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, Muhammad won her first qualifying round in the individual saber event, but was defeated by French fencer Cécilia Berder in the second round. Muhammad went on to become the first female Muslim-American athlete to win an Olympic medal when she took home the bronze in the team sabre event. Muhammad and teammates Dagmara Wozniak, Mariel Zagunis and Monica Aksamit defeated the Italian team 45–30 for the win.

“A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sport,” Muhammad said in an interview with USA Today. “And it’s not just to challenge misconceptions outside the Muslim community, but within the Muslim community. I want to break cultural norms.”

She added, “It’s a blessing to represent so many people who don’t have voices, who don’t speak up, and it’s been a really remarkable experience for me.”

The Entrepreneur

Muhammad has traveled the world for her sport, but also as a speaker at various public engagements and at conventions relating to sports and education. Often she would find herself frustrated with the lack of modern fashion that was modest in design for observant Muslim women. 

Seeing that void in the marketplace, and with the suggestion and encouragement of her brother Qareeb, Muhammad founded her online shop Louella in 2014. Her e-tail shop offers an affordable fashion alternative for the Muslim market. Her brother helped connect her to a manufacturer in Los Angeles, where all the clothing is made. He now runs the manufacturing end and she and her sisters design the products. Starting her own business and working with her family has become another outlet for Muhammad, who hopes to transition to operate her company full-time after retiring from her sporting career.

On November 13, Mattel announced that it was honoring Muhammad with the unveiling of a new Barbie doll in her likeness. Part of the brand's annual Shero program, which celebrates notable women and their achievements, the doll is the first in Barbie's lengthy history to come with a hijab.

The Olympic medalist responded to the news by posting an Instagram photo of her with a doll, writing, "I’m proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear hijab! This is a childhood dream come true."

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