By Keisha Bell
Black American women are diverse. Many miss her uniqueness if she is seen at all. Her strength has pushed her to the forefront of civil rights’ movements. Her fight to be respected may at times seem loud, particularly when it is not reciprocated. Few, however, ask, “Why is it not reciprocated?”
Meet Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympian saber fencer and author. Muhammad was born Dec 4, 1985, and made history by being the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab while competing for the United States in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
At that same Olympics, Muhammad became the first female Muslim-American athlete to earn a medal at an Olympics when she won the bronze medal as part of Team USA in the Team Sabre.
After Muhammad’s parents converted to Islam, they intentionally sought out a sport for her to participate in where she could maintain her hijab. Sure, they could have denied her the opportunity to play a sport as an attempt to protect her from the insults that she would face for being different. That was not their plan; because after all, she is different, and that difference is a valued part of her.
At the age of 13, Muhammad joined her high school’s fencing team. She showed incredible potential and was invited to train under the prestigious Peter Westbrook Foundation’s Elite Athlete Program. Muhammad developed into a 3-time All-American, as well as the 2005 Junior Olympic Champion.
The sport of fencing has opened many doors for Muhammad. After receiving a college scholarship, in 2007, she graduated from Duke University with dual bachelor’s degrees in international relations and African and African-American studies.
Since 2010, Muhammad has been a member of the United States National Fencing Team. Still mastering her craft, as of 2018, Muhammad ranks No. 3 in the United States and No. 23 in the world. She is a 5-time Senior World medalist, which includes being the 2014 World Champion in the team event.
Having received first-hand support from the Westbrook Foundation, a program that utilizes the sport of fencing as a vehicle to develop life skills in young people from underserved communities, Muhammad understands the importance of continuing that message through her platform.
She serves on the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative and has traveled to various countries to engage in dialogue on the importance of sports and education. There are numerous benefits for girls participating in sports, benefits ranging from increasing her self-esteem to wealth building.
Inspired by Muhammad’s accomplishments, in 2017 Mattel introduced a Barbie doll wearing a hijab. Also, she has motivated others via her two books in which she shares parts of her life.
A part of Muhammad’s identity is being Islamic. Not commonly seen worn in sports, she wears a hijab. She is different. We all are.
Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant. www.emergingfree.com