Fortunately, the fencing mask Ibtihaj Muhammad wears while competing will hide her headbag – a symbol of Islamic oppression of women. If she makes the Olympic team, hopefully she won’t win a medal and embarrass the nation by having to stand on the podium all decked out in her Muslim headbag.
NJ.COM Ibtihaj Muhammad is the first practicing Muslim to represent the U.S. in women’s fencing. She’s ranked second in the U.S. and 11th in the world. Ibtihaj stands out because she wears her hijab (headbag) that is worn by some Muslim women.
When it’s her turn to spar, she slips the fencing mask over her hijab, the headbag Muslim women wear. In a room full of fencers, it’s the one thing that makes her stand out. If she makes the Olympics, she’ll stand out even more. Fencing officials believe Muhammad is likely to be the first American Muslim woman wearing a headbag to compete at the games. The United States Olympic Committee doesn’t track athletes by religion, but the demographic is something Muhammad thinks about, knowing what an accomplishment it would be since few Muslim women compete in sports.
Muhammad is ranked number two in the United States and 13th in the world in women’s sabre, a fencing style in which strikes are made above the waist with any part of the weapon. Locally, she represents the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City, training at the Fencers Club on West 28th Street, where she is coached by Akhnaten Spencer-El, a 2000 Olympic fencer.
The third of five siblings in an athletic family, Muhammad finds strength in her faith. In August, she stayed focused through Ramadan, the annual Islamic month of fasting during the day. But Muhammad wants no sympathy, saying her sacrifices are not unlike anybody else’s. She kept hyrdrated, waking up every 90 minutes at night to eat and drink. If she makes the team, Muhammad will be used to the regimen since Ramadan next year falls during the Olympic competition.
That belief helps her deal with distractions on this journey. At times she’s wondered if her race or religion played a role in a judge scoring unfairly. When traveling, she has been treated as a foreigner who can’t speak English, and worse, she feels the stares that say terrorist.
In Belgium this year, security officials told her to leave the airport unless she removed her hijab. Muhammad would not. Her mother interceded and there was a compromise to have her head patted down. Muhammad said it’s frustrating making others comfortable, but she’s not going to let “closeted views” derail her purpose.
“If God wants me to succeed, no one can take it from me,’’ she said. “That’s the way I approach it and I think that’s what keeps me sane and grounded in this sport.’’