Ibtihaj Muhammad stood beaming on the podium in Budapest in 2013, flashing a bright smile, a world championship bronze medal and the red, white and blue hijab that perfectly encapsulated who she is as an athlete and a person. Muhammad, a New Jersey-born fencer, is a proud Muslim and an equally proud American. And this summer at the Rio Olympics, Muhammed will seek to stand up for her community by fighting for a country that hasn't always fought for those who share her faith.
Muhammad, the middle daughter of a retired detective and special education teacher, will become the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, the head scarf required of Muslim women. Those circumstances have put Muhammad, 30, on a platform well beyond sports. She's hoping her presence as an Olympian can help counter the recent wave of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S., triggered in part by Donald Trump's comments about banning Muslims from the U.S.
"I feel like I've been blessed to be in this position, to be given this platform. When I think of my predecessors, and people who've spoken out against bigotry and hate, I feel like I owe it not just to myself but to my community to try to fight it," said Muhammad, who is ranked seventh in the world in the women's saber. "There are people who don't feel safe going to work every day, that don't feel safe being themselves. I think that's a problem."
Muhammad made her first world championship in 2010, and she helped the Americans win a team bronze a year later. Two years ago, Muhammad was part of her first gold medal-winning senior world team. Athletes have had to fight for the right to wear religious head coverings in sports like basketball and football, where FIFA changed its rules to allow hijabs in 2012. But Muhammad has never had to downplay her faith in competition or in life. She often sports multicolored hijabs on and off the strip and has even started a clothing website with her siblings, Louella.com, for Muslim women seeking more colorful options while still adhering to their religion. Muhammad has suffered her share of backlash, though. On Saturday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Muhammad was asked by a volunteer to remove her hijab for a security photo and later tweeted that she couldn't "make this stuff up."
But Muhammad is intent on using her time in the spotlight to show the U.S. and the rest of the world that Muslim-Americans should be embraced, not shunned. "I've never questioned myself as an American and my position here," Muhammad said. "This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We're American by birth, and it's a part of who I am and this is all that I know. "So when I hear someone say something like, 'We're going to send Muslims back to their country,' it's like, "Well, where am I going to go? I'm an American."
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