In the media coverage around the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was a popular topic of conversation and a frequent interview subject. Like any Olympic athlete, Ibtihaj has an inspiring story of working hard and overcoming obstacles to reach her level of success. She is always smiling and a positive young woman who joked around with comedians on the talk shows and taught basic fencing moves to Michelle Obama, Stephen Colbert and Ellen Degeneres. What made Ibtihaj a unique media figure was not only her athletic success and her positive attitude but also the fact that she is Muslim American and wears the headscarf and modest clothing while competing.
Ibtihaj has frequently told the story about how she initially got involved in fencing because her parents, who are African American converts to Islam, were looking for a sport that their daughters could compete in while still wearing modest clothing. Fencing fit the bill since athletes must also cover their bodies for safety. In the 2016 Olympics, Ibtihaj went on to make history by being the first Muslim American woman in a headscarf to compete in the Olympics and to earn a medal. She received a bronze medal in the team sabre competition.
Beyond being a visual icon of Islam, Ibtihaj has also been a vocal critic of the rhetoric of Trump, which has promoted racism and violence against Muslims. Simply the presence of Ibtihaj–wearing the red, white and blue, and proudly competing for her country, while maintaining a strong focus on her faith–serves as an affront to those who want to argue that Islam is irreconcilable with American values. It is difficult to argue that someone like Ibtihaj is not an American who loves her country but can also incorporate her religious values into her daily life.
Ibtihaj is the perfect figure to represent both her country and her religion because she is dedicated to her sport and always presents a positive image in her media appearances, social outreach efforts and online activities. Ibtihaj’s Instagram page highlights the various initiatives in which she is involved. She is also a fashion entrepreneur and began her own modest fashion line, Louella.