Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first female Muslim fencer in the U.S. to take the sport on to a professional level, all while wearing hijab. She has become an inspiration to many young women who wish to pursue a future as professional athletes. Muhammad could soon be the first Muslim woman in hijab to represent the United States at the Olympics. We had the chance to ask her some questions and find out more about how she got to where she is today.
When did you start fencing, and for those who many not be familiar with the sport, what exactly does it involve?
My mom and I were passing by the local high school, when she spotted the fencing team practicing in the cafeteria. She noticed the jacket, pants and long socks. Because they were fully covered, my mom suggested that I should try it out when I get to high school. A few months later at 13 years old when I entered high school, I joined the fencing team.
Some describe fencing as the physical chess. It is tactical and strategic. Fencing is a combat sport using blades. There are three different types of fencing weapons: foil, epee, sabre. I fence the sabre weapon, whose target area is from the waist up. I is the fastest of the three weapons.
Are people ever surprised when they see you at fencing tournaments?
When I first began competing on this level, I think I caught many people off guard. However over the years, I feel as though I have created a name for myself. I have reached a world ranking as high as number 11 in the world. Being a top fencer in the world who is a hijabi and has the last name Muhammad, it is hard to go unnoticed. Since I began fencing, there are more Muslim fencing families in the United States that ever before. We are growing!
XVI Pan American Games Gold Medalists
As a Muslim woman involved in professional sports do you think that hijab is an obstacle? We’ve heard of other sports like soccer or weight lifting in which Muslim women were told it didn’t fall in the guidelines, have you ever had to deal with that?
I have never thought of my hijab as an obstacle. I was drawn to fencing because of the jacket, long pants and socks. It wasn’t until I was older I realized that my hijab altered my trajectory in sports, bringing me to a sport I love but never would have discovered otherwise.
Growing up in the public school system, it was required that I receive a letter from my local imam explaining the purpose of my hijab. Once my parents received the letter it was turned in to the school’s athletic director and then to the district superintendent. All this had to be completed every year before I was allowed to practice with any high school sports team.
Fortunately, my hijab never conflicted with my participation in sports.
Did you ever face any obstacles from your family or the Muslim community for pursuing a sport?
I grew up in an athletic household with four siblings. Every one of my siblings played sports throughout college. My brother played football, one sister played volleyball, and my younger sister is also a fencer. My parents have always been extremely supportive of my participation in sports.
What is it that keeps you going and continuing to compete?
I hope to inspire Muslim and minority youth to believe in their athletic dreams. I wouldn’t continue to fence if it compromised my faith or my beliefs. I pray that at least one young muslimah is inspired by my story and feels compelled to wear hijab daily, but also feel that she can wear hijab in sport as well.
Can you tell us some of the places you’ve been to while competing?
Cuba, Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, France, United Kingdom, China, Costa Rica, Mexico, Russia, Belgium
Is there a dream that you’ve always had when it comes to fencing (winning a certain tournament etc.) and have you accomplished that yet?
I have always dreamed of making the Olympic team. God willing my dream will become a reality.
What would your advice be to young Muslim girls who want to take up sports and make a career out of it?
God is the best of planners and there is nothing that can change what He has already written for you. I would tell young Muslim girls not to allow anyone or anything to come between them and their dreams.