By Mary-Katherine Ream
When Ibtihaj Muhammad removes her fencing mask, she sends a message to minorities everywhere.
“I want them to know that nothing should hinder them from reaching their goals — not race, not religion, not gender,” she said.
A practicing Muslim of African-American descent, Muhammad has had to overcome many hurdles to become one of the world’s top-ranked athletes in women’s sabre, a discipline of fencing.
Not the least of these challenges has been reconciling her religion’s call for modesty with the customs of modern sports.
Muhammad’s parents always encouraged their children to play sports. Her parents believed athletic participation provided a productive means for their children to stay physically and socially active.
By middle school, Muhammad was swimming, running track and playing volleyball. But for every sport she played, her mom had to make her a new uniform.
“I remember the feeling of being different from my friends because of my modest dress,” Muhammad said.
One day when Muhammad and her mother spotted young girls fencing at the local high school, they knew immediately it was a sport that would allow Muhammad to participate fully — without a special uniform.
In fencing, a combat sport that features one-on-one sword duels, competitors wear head-to-toe protective clothing. For Muhammad, the required gear is what makes the sport “uniquely accommodating.” With its full-body uniform, fencing allows Muhammad to adhere to Islam without standing out from her fellow athletes.
“What is so cool about my involvement in fencing is I was able to find a sport that embraced my religious beliefs and my desire to wear a hijab,” she explains. “My desire to wear hijab brought me to a sport that I love, but probably would have never discovered otherwise.”
Although the religious affiliations of athletes are not tracked, officials believe Muhammad may be the first Muslim to represent the United States in international competition. She is certainly the first Muslim athlete to compete for the United States while wearing a head scarf.
Muhammad said her successful fencing career proves “the hijab is not an obstacle.”
She hopes to illustrate that point through her work at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a New York nonprofit organization that uses fencing to help inner-city youth develop life skills.
Muhammad began visiting the foundation for conditioning and footwork classes as a young fencer. She now mentors other young fencers — particularly minorities and young women.
“I want to be their example that anything is possible with perseverance,” Muhammad said
When she is not volunteering at the foundation, Muhammad trains 30 hours per week at the Fencers Club in New York. She spends another four hours conditioning in New Jersey.
As she wrote in her USA Fencing profile, Muhammad believes fencing has taught her “how to aspire higher, sacrifice, work hard and overcome defeat.”
In addition to teaching her the rewards of hard work, fencing has provided Muhammad with opportunities she would not have had otherwise.
In 2007, Muhammad graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and African-American studies, as well as a minor in Arabic. She is a three-time NCAA All-American fencer, an honor awarded to the best college athletes in each sport.
Although Muhammad has already earned many honors in her fencing career, there is one in particular she still hopes to achieve: She wants to represent the United States on the grand stage of the Olympics.
Mary-Katherine Ream is a staff writer with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.