The 30-year-old from New Jersey will compete in the hijab in Rio. She’s planning to use her profile to combat bigotry – and she wants a gold medal, too
he woman who will challenge Donald Trump’s Muslim intolerance is going to wear a mask at the Rio Olympics. That’s the unfortunate part of Ibtihaj Muhammad’s pursuit of a real red-white-and-blue American gold medal moment.
Because, when the Olympics begin and the 30-year-old fencer from Maplewood, New Jersey stands before the world, representing a country with a presidential candidate who seems to want her gone, no one will get to see an American athlete competing in a hijab. Instead, she will be sheathed in white, and she will look no different than anyone else. But they will notice when she drives her saber into a cloud of hate.
“It’s a tough political environment we are in right now. I think Muslims are under the microscope and I’m hoping to change the image of what people may have of Muslim women,” Muhammad said Wednesday afternoon at the Team USA Media Summit.
She sat in a director’s chair at the Beverly Hilton hotel placed before a backdrop of American flags while wearing a US Olympic team shirt and a gray hijab, and she talked about being an American girl with an American childhood. And she did this while trying hard not to say too much about what she thought of the Republican presidential frontrunner.
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“I hate to talk about what ifs,” she said Tuesday. “But I’m hoping that we can kind of change our direction a little bit and see Muslims in more of a positive sort of light and combat the negative imagery that we are shown every day.”
She said she didn’t want to panic about something she can’t control or might never happen. Perhaps Trump will not win the presidential race and his crazed rhetoric will be forgotten. A few weeks ago, though, she told Time magazine’s Sean Gregory something else. She said: “If Donald Trump had his way, America would be white, and there wouldn’t be any color and there wouldn’t be any diversity.”
An event to promote the coming Olympics probably wasn’t a place for Muhammad to repeat what she told Time. She seemed to understand that her tone needed to be softer, her words more upbeat and her attitude more positive. She says she is a person who does not like to dwell on bad things. And yet she also receives regular emails and social media messages spewing hateful things, gets critical stares from people who wonder why an athlete is wearing a hijab and must navigate life in a country where people like her have become a political issue.
“I’ve never questioned myself as an American and my position here,” she said Tuesday. “This is my home. My family has always been here and it’s a part of who I am and this is all that I know. So when someone says we’re going to send Muslims back to their country, I say: where am I going to go? I’m American.”
The thing is, Donald Trump should probably love Ibtihaj Muhammad. She’s a doer and an entrepreneur. A few years ago she was frustrated at the lack of appealing long dresses to wear at public functions and founded a clothing line called Louella. Now she sells clothes and seems quite good at it. She handles the business and most of the marketing, juggling daily operations around her Olympic practices and qualifiers. After Tuesday’s media session he headed off to do Louella meetings like every other businesswoman running around LA.
She picked fencing in part because it was a sport that allowed her to compete without having to feel conspicuous about wearing a hijab, but also as a way to get to college. She noticed many of the best schools had fencing teams, and rode the sport to Duke, where she became an All American and earned dual degrees in international relations and African American Studies.
In fact, she would probably be exactly the American for Donald Trump to embrace were it not for the fact that her parents converted to Islam long before they married or even met. But that fact alone changes her American experience, placing her in the middle of Trump’s fire and that of every other citizen of her country who somehow thinks her religion deems her a threat.
The rhetoric that followed terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino especially frightened her. She was travelling to qualifying meets and suddenly she heard stories of Muslims being pulled off planes. She wondered what would happen if someone asked for her to be taken off a plane. How would she get to her qualifiers? Would her Olympic dream be derailed by ignorance?
Already she has become a critical face of these Olympics, appearing on a number of diversity panels and promotions. When the LA 2024 committee pushed its bid this week with a number of current and former US Olympic stars, she stood on the same stage as Carl Lewis, Greg Louganis and Landon Donovan. She is going to be impossible to miss at these Olympics, and given the climate in the US these days, that’s a good thing.
There are days she gets tired of pushing against a world that questions her legitimacy in it. Some afternoons she might not want to practice or field a phone call asking about another bigoted statement from a raging politician. Sometimes she would like a break. But then she thinks about those who don’t have her voice. She thinks of the Muslim girls who are not encouraged to play sports or the women who are persecuted simply for wearing a hijab like the one she has on now. And she knows she cannot stay silent.
She has too much to say.
“I feel like I owe it to my community. I owe it to people who look like me,” she says. “These struggles, this everyday of this fear-mongering and hate that we are experiencing – I owe it to all of us to combat these notions of hate and bigotry. I have to speak out against it, because there are people before me who did it for African Americans and did it for other minorities in this country – and I feel like I owe it to do it for us at this moment.”
She will not be silenced, not in Rio, not after. And what happens this August when she pulls the white mask over her hijab and steps into the Olympics, a Jersey girl as American as anyone on this US team? Will Donald Trump pull for her to fail? Will the man who says he wants to make America great again, hope an American loses? Will all his loyal followers?
And if so, what kind of Americans will that make them?