Ibtihaj Muhammad is a New Jersey native and prized fencer who has just qualified for the Summer 2016 Olympics. She is also an African-American Muslim who plans on competing on behalf of the U.S. in her hijab. Needless to say, she is breaking major cultural barriers.
Muhammad’s passion for fencing began after she attended a high school fencing competition and noticed that, unlike most sports that require certain standards of dress, it allowed for the competitor to be completely covered. Muhammad then realized she could practice the sport without breaking any religious regulations, allowing her to abide by her cultural standards and wear her hijab. While she enjoyed fencing throughout high school, Muhammad initially viewed it as a hobby and decided to pursue other areas of academic interested in college. However, after enrolling in Duke University as an international relations and African-American studies double major, Muhammad saw a pestering issue: the lack of diversity and representation in major sports.
She told TeamUSA.org:
“After I graduated from college, I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport. I recognized that I had a skill set, so I started to pursue fencing full time. I felt that it was something the squad needed. There were barriers that needed to be broken in women’s saber.”
Muhammad is proof that progress is slowly being made toward a less exclusive society, one that will be more welcoming of women in sports and representative of the Muslim community. “In the Muslim community, there is a sense that you are always a doctor or lawyer…Black people didn’t fence, and Muslims didn’t either” she said in an interview with CNN. “[The sport hasn’t been] diverse enough. Being an African-American Muslim woman, I can be that change.”
In addition to her extensive collection of awards and honors, including a silver medal at the 2013 World Cup and gold medal in the 2014 World Fencing Championships, Muhammad is also breaking the glass ceiling of fashion by launching a clothing line that specializes in modest wardrobe. Louella was created after Muhammad “noticed a void in the fashion industry for affordable modest clothing,” which prompted her to design “modest, fashion forward clothing to the world via online business.”
Muhammad’s career provides a beacon of hope for any minority that wishes to break into a difficult field. In light of the 2016 Oscars and Chris Rock’s relentless jokes about the lack of diversity, it is easy to see that major organizations are having trouble including different demographics. Although both Hollywood and major sports are difficult for any person to break into, it is especially hard for minority groups and women. (For those who believe that the Oscars did not discriminate, I have a solid argument. Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Creed while Michael B. Jordan wasn’t.)
Muhammad is one of several public figures challenging standards of normalcy: Misty Copeland became the first African-American principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, and then encouraged a young Muslim girl to pursue performing ballet in her hijab. Figureheads such as Muhammad and Copeland embody the infamous Gandhi quote by confronting racism that is embedded in our society’s DNA. Be prepared to see their impact.