Fashion lured Ibtihaj Muhammad into fencing. More precisely, her mother was persuaded by the uniform.
As a young athlete in New Jersey, Muhammad, like her siblings, fluttered from sport to sport. But as a Muslim-American, she found herself not in lockstep with her teammates. Muhammad wore a hijab (a head covering some Muslim women wear in public), long sleeves and long pants, or spandex when the sport called for short sleeves or shorts.
When Muhammad was 12, her mother spotted an activity while driving past the local high school in which participants wore white jackets and pants with a hooded mask. That is, covered from head to toe.
“She didn’t know what it was, but she said I was going to do that when I got to high school,” Muhammad said.
Her fencing career actually got started before then, and it took Muhammad to acclaim as an Olympic bronze medalist in the team sabre competition at the 2016 Games in Rio.
Muhammad has parlayed that occasion and other competitive success into her current role as a notable public figure. She serves on the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sports Initiative, and Wednesday she told her story to some 1,700 attending the annual WIN for KC awards celebration at the Kansas City Convention Center.
Even after Muhammad found a sport that fulfilled her spirit and mother’s desire for more modest attire, she dealt with doubters because of her background and identity as a black woman and Muslim-American.
“If I had listened to people who told me I shouldn’t be fencing — that because I’m black I should be playing basketball instead — or that girls who wear hijabs don’t play sports, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad’s Olympic aspirations started a few years after her graduation from Duke, inspired partly because she saw little diversity representing the United States in fencing. She fell short of making the team for London in 2012, increasing her motivation for 2016.
Muhammad climbed the ranks of the nation’s top fencers and qualified for individual and team competition. Some suggested that she become the United States’ flag bearer. Who better to represent the nation, especially after then-presidential nominee Donald Trump had criticized the parents of a Muslim-American army captain killed in Iraq after they appeared at the Democratic National Convention?
The role went to swimmer Michael Phelps.
Still, the Olympic experience and stepping on the medal platform with three teammates was an “indescribable feeling,” Muhammad said.
She felt something similar when Mattel created its first hijab-wearing Barbie based on her likeness. The doll comes with a fencing uniform and tiny sabre.
“I’m excited for kids to have a doll with a hijab,” Muhammad said. “When I was a kid, I’d have different pieces of fabric tied around my dolls’ heads.”
Then there is her clothing line, which she started with siblings in 2014. Named for her grandmother, Louella features modest long-sleeved and floor-length dresses.
Muhammad is undecided about whether or not she’ll undertake a 2020 Olympic quest, but she does plan to continue her speaking role. On Wednesday, she addressed an audience wearing a Team USA pullover that included the American flag and a Nike swoosh.
“I owe it not just to myself and people who look like me but also to the greater American community, people who don’t look like me, and people whose views may not be in line with mine,” she said.