May 13, 2016
An American Muslim woman will be fencing for the United States in a headscarf this summer at the Rio Olympics.
Headscarves have had a tough time passing muster in the international sports world, as have uniforms that cover arms and legs. In 2012, the International Volleyball Federation finally altered its rules and allowed a less revealing uniform at the London Olympics after several countries lobbied for it. And it was only in 2014 that FIFA officially allowed soccer players to wear headscarves after getting over its fear that women wearing them would be strangled on the playing field.
Sports such as shooting—in which several Iranian women have entered the Olympics—and fencing—where full body cover, including the face, is mandatory—have not seen religious clothing debates.
Ibtihaj Muhammad is a 30-year-old saber fencer from New Jersey who will be the first American athlete in a headscarf to compete in any Olympic Games. An African-American, she is a Duke University graduate, which she attended on an academic scholarship.
In her USA Fencing bio she wrote, “When most people picture an Olympic fencer, they probably do not imagine a person like me. Fortunately, I am not most people. I have always believed that with hard work, dedication and perseverance, I could one day walk with my US teammates into Olympic history.”
Muhammad started fencing when she was 13 years old after her mother encouraged her to try it out, since she could play the sport while remaining fully clothed. Her talent, passion and courage has caught the attention of many.
In February, President Obama even gave Muhammad a shout out during his speech at a mosque in Baltimore, his first mosque visit as president, saying, “Bring home the gold, Ibtihaj.” She also showed off her fencing moves on the daytime television show, “Ellen.”
She was part of the gold medal winning US women’s saber team at the World Fencing Championships in 2014 and the bronze medal teams in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.