By Joe Jenkins
When Ibtihaj Muhammad stepped onto the piste of Rio’s Carioca Arena, saber in hand, she had her sights on Olympic gold.
In her first match, Muhammed deftly outmaneuvered Olena Kravatska, ducking out of the way of her opponent’s weapon and surprising the Ukrainian with an unconventional strike. Her brother, Qareeb, led spectators in a “U-S-A” chant, and millions worldwide watched as the Olympian removed her American-flag adorned headgear, revealing a beaming smile and hijab, the traditional garb worn by Muslim women.
The 30-year-old New Jersey native is the first woman to represent the United States wearing the hijab, and by doing so she had already made history before even standing in front of her opponent. But for Muhammad, the hijab represents only a part of who she is, and showcases the diversity of America.
As the daughter of a New Jersey police officer and special education teacher, she studied hard in school and played sports. Her parents, who converted to Islam before Muhammad was born, always supported the young Olympian’s athletic aspirations, spending time to sew uniforms that would cover her in accordance with their Islamic faith. She would later take these aspirations, and her faith, to Duke University where she won a full scholarship.
Now, Muhammad is bringing her story to the Olympic Games as one of 554 athletes representing the United States, a refreshing reminder of what it means to be united “e pluribus unum”—out of many, one.
“It’s all really a big dream. I don’t think it’s hit me yet. The honor of representing Muslim and black women is one I don’t take lightly,” Muhammad told Rolling Stone Magazine.
Her pride in representing her country comes despite the Islamophobia she sometimes faces, from being singled out for looking “suspicious” to being told to remove her hijab. Comments like these, along with other xenophobic rhetoric, are becoming all too common in today’s national stage.
That’s exactly why Muhammad’s presence at the 2016 Olympic games is so important.
“I think that anyone who has paid attention to the news at all would realize the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA,” she told Sports Illustrated. “It’s not just any team. It’s the United States of America. . . and again, just challenging those misperceptions of who a Muslim woman is.”
Sadly, Ibtihaj Muhammad didn’t bring home the gold for herself. She suffered a close defeat in her second match (she’s still competing for a team medal). But the Muslim American woman has already scored a victory for the United States. To millions watching her around the world, Muhammad is an embodiment of American ideals. She serves as a reminder of all that America is, and always will be—the home of the brave, regardless of race, creed, or religion.