By nature, Ibtihaj Muhammad is not the type of person who seeks the limelight. The fencer, who earned a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games as a member of the U.S. saber fencing team, prefers to put her head down and work rather than bask in the glory of her accomplishments. So when Muhammad was thrust into the spotlight this summer as the first American woman to compete in hijab at the Games, it put her outside of her comfort zone.
“I don’t have a really strong affinity for the public eye,” Muhammad told Excelle Sports in a phone interview. “I’d rather be focused on giving back and being an activist, whether that be socially or providing in underserved communities or talking to young kids. To me, that’s more important than living your life in the public eye.”
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In Rio, Muhammad didn’t win an individual medal, losing to France’s Cécilia Berder in the round of 16, but she rebounded by helping the American women win their only Olympic fencing medal in 2016 and fourth-ever team medal in their history at the Summer Games.
“I wish I wasn’t the first Muslim [American] to compete in the Games in hijab. I wish there were women I could have looked up to when I was younger to have as a source of inspiration that I could have had as a guiding light growing up,” Muhammad said. “But to be in this position now to use my platform for good is an honor and a blessing and something that I carry with pride.”
The hype Muhammad garnered ahead of the Games may have been validated by her team medal, but her impact has since extended far beyond the confines of the fencing strip. The 30-year old, named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential People of 2016, believes she has helped alter the narrative for Muslim-American women.
“My journey to the Olympics and being a member of the Olympic team was just so much bigger than me,” said Muhammad, a member of the U.S. national fencing team for the last six years. “I was able to provide a different storyline for the Muslim community that was more positive as opposed to the negative stories we see and hear about Muslims that are often perpetuated.”
And now that Rio is in the rearview mirror, the New Jersey native is focused on continuing her fight for Muslim women. But today, she’s doing it through fashion, in addition to fencing.
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“I’ve always said that after the Olympics I want to focus more on my clothing line,” said Muhammad, who founded a fashion-foward clothing line for Muslim women called Louella in 2014. “Now that I’ve achieved these things in [fencing], I kind of have to change and shift gears a little bit. I have to set new goals, whether that be in terms of my career or in my personal life.”
And with her line, which celebrates modern wear for Muslim women, Muhammed believes she can continue to challenge the misconceptions that exist in American society about people of her faith.
“When a lot of people think of Muslim women, they’ve been conditioned to see them in one way as maybe wearing all black, not being American, not having a voice, being oppressed, being forced in some way to dress the way that they do,” Muhammad said. “If I can attach a face and a name to a group of people that for so long has been thought of as being an other, I think that will change people’s perceptions and misconceptions.
“I hope I can make the road a little bit easier for people that come after me.”