Not only is Ibtihaj Muhammad the only Muslim-American woman to ever medal at the Olympics and the first American woman to ever compete while wearing a hijab, she has also been utterly fearless about taking on political issues. From her open letters to Donald Trump in Time magazine, to her outspokenness after being detained at the airport, Muhammad has refused to just “shut up and play.” Here I interview her about being a political athlete. Listen the entire interview on the Edge of Sports podcast.
Dave Zirin: At what point were you aware that just by being on the Olympic team, you would be making history?
Ibtihaj Muhammad: It wasn’t something I really consciously thought about, I would say until after I qualified for the team in 2016. Then it became a media storm around my name and qualifying as the first Muslim woman to do so. I know that I’ve always been aware of being different and breaking into spaces where I felt underrepresented, whether that be as a person of color or a religious minority, especially in the sport of fencing.
To be able to overcome obstacles not just in sport but outside the sport to become the first Muslim woman on Team USA, and then to come home with a medal, it was a phenomenal experience, and my journey has felt so much bigger than me because I see that more people are going to come after me. Not just the Muslim kids but the kids who may not have access to ice hockey, or fencing, or gymnastics and saying, “Well, I don’t see people that look like me.” And I think that is what was so groundbreaking about this Olympics specifically for Team USA, specifically for women and minority women, because we had so many firsts.
To have Simone Manuel be so amazing in the pool, to see Simone Biles be so amazing on the gymnastics floor, and to have a Muslim woman compete in the sport of fencing, to me it felt very moving, not just for me in fencing, but to see people break and shatter those ceilings all around me.
DZ: How much of being this trailblazer and “representative figure” is blessing and how much is burden?
IM: It’s never felt like a burden, and I’ll tell you why: I’m comfortable with my skin color, I’m comfortable with my religious beliefs, I’m comfortable with being Ibtihaj, and I’ve always been like that. But I’ve seen how being different can affect how other people treat you, how they view you, and I feel like that’s a projection of their own insecurities.
DZ: Can you speak about the support of the Muslim community?
IM: Every single Muslim, and there are millions around the world, every single one of them I consider a brother or a sister, right? And that sense of support from the community, I can feel with just the push of a button. What’s particular for me as an athlete on social media, I get messages from all different corners of the world, Muslims and non-Muslims, but just to have someone say something like “I prayed for you this morning,” right before I go out for my first Olympic games, right before I step on the strip in Rio, that even subconsciously helps me.