En Garde: Muslim-American Woman Fencer Slashes Stereotypes

Posted: February 1st, 2013 by the US Embassy in UK
Author: irc

U.S. Fencing’s Ibtihaj Muhammad demonstrates her fencing jacket at a school in East London
On Monday 28 January, Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to compete on behalf of the United States in international competition, visited three schools in East London. She spoke to students about the importance of setting goals, leading a healthy lifestyle, and overcoming obstacles related to race, religion, and gender.
Ibtihaj, a two-time U.S. National Fencing Champion and a member of the U.S. National Fencing Team since 2009, began fencing at the age of 13. She was raised in an athletic household with four siblings and played many recreational sports growing up. After searching for a sport that would enable her to comply with the Muslim requirement of modesty by remaining fully covered, her mother pointed out students fencing in full body uniforms while driving by their local school. Muhammad said because of this chance moment, “I’d like to think fencing found me.” Reminding students again of the ability to find a passion regardless of circumstance she added, “Don’t let anyone tell you no. There’s nothing you can’t achieve.”
Despite uncovering talent at a fairly young age, the journey to the top for Ibtihaj has not been without obstacles. She shared with students the many difficulties over which she has prevailed and those she continues to face as an African-American, Muslim, female athlete. Taunted by her peers in sport for wearing a hijab and challenged by keeping up with Islamic rituals while maintaining an intensive training and competition schedule (once even completing an Olympic training camp in the high altitude of Colorado Springs while fasting for Ramadan), Ibtihaj proved to the students that refusing to compromise makes for the toughest kind of competitor. Financial barriers have also threatened Ibtihaj’s career from time to time, as the Muhammad family struggled to keep up with the expensive demands on an average income. Students at the Sarah Bonnell School in East London gasped as Muhammad shared the price tag on her fencing mask- around six hundred US dollars. But Ibtihaj reinforced, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Ibtihaj was recruited by Duke University on an academic scholarship where in 2004, 2005, and 2006 she was an NCAA All-American while also double majoring in International Relations and African Studies. After attending her first national fencing event and failing to qualify for the second day of competition, Ibtihaj discovered that to be successful at the level of competition she desired, she would need to set continual realistic and measurable goals. Emphasizing this idea to students, Muhammad compared her goal-setting process to studying for an exam. She explained, “You don’t study really hard to get an A on an exam and then revert to your old ways, slack off, and expect the same results. It’s the same idea I use in training.” Ibtihaj attributes her success to being dedicated to a healthy lifestyle and instilled in students that sometimes a commitment to healthy living requires straying from cultural norms.
Despite her many accolades, Ibtihaj says the most fulfilling aspect of her time as a member of the U.S. National Team has been opportunities to share her story with students like those she visited in East London. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Muhammad’s ability to connect and inspire youth by calling her to serve on the U.S. Department of State’s Council to Empower Women and Girls through Sports alongside athletes like Michelle Kwan and Mia Hamm. But Ibtihaj’s dedication to giving back should not fool anyone into thinking she is taking time away from her hectic training schedule. Her eyes are firmly fixed on the next goal: becoming the first American to wear a hijab at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, 2016.