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Carter: Maplewood woman could be first American Muslim to wear hijab while competing at Olympics

17 October 2011 General 10 Comments Email This Post Email This Post
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 headscarf that is worn by Muslim women.

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 headscarf that is worn by Muslim women.

Ibtihaj Muhammad jogs lightly across the second floor gym at the Manhattan Fencing Center in New York. She’s warming up, eager to get some work in.

Ready! Fence!

Fencers are already on the strip, a narrow fighting lane, and they’re going at it, the air filled with little razor-like hisses and whispers. Many are Olympic hopefuls, like her, preparing for the World Championships Saturday in Italy. The competition is another chance for Muhammad to earn qualifying points in her quest to make the 2012 London Olympics in July.

“I don’t think I ever wanted anything so much,” said Muhammad, 25, of Maplewood. “I just want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make this Olympics.”

When it’s her turn to spar, she slips the fencing mask over her hijab, the headscarf 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 hijab 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.

“I didn’t have female Muslim role models to look up to in the athletic world,” she said. “It’s really important for people to know my story. I think it’s something I have to do, because I want Muslim female youth to believe they can do something like this.”

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. Under him, she’s a tactical, cerebral fighter who caught the fencing world off guard in 2009.

She won the U.S. national title that year, cracking the top 16 world rankings. Last year, she won a bronze medal at the Pan American Championships and a coveted spot on the U.S. women’s national team.

“She’s still young in the game and she’s only going to get better,” Spencer-El said.

Back to the strip. She goes against a member of the U.S. men’s national team, then her teammate, Dagmara Wozniak of Avenel. You can hear the constant ping of saber blades colliding. Everyone has cat-like footwork that is lickety-split quick, calculating and aggressive. They duel back and forth trying to outsmart each other, snapping their weapons at the wrist to score. The long electrical wires attached to the edge of their fencing jackets register hits. All of them look like puppets dancing on a string, lunging toward each other and their their shot at gold.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, left, and Damara Wozniak, of Avenel, face off during practice match in New York.

Ibtihaj Muhammad, left, and Damara Wozniak, of Avenel, face off during practice match in New York.

Getting to Italy isn’t easy. Each country is allowed two spots for women’s sabre and Muhammad and her teammates are the top four fencers in the U.S. The best of them is two-time Olympian Mariel Zagunis of Oregon, and she’s number one in the world.

Muhammad is unfazed. She trains daily, except for Sunday, running in the morning before conditioning at a women’s gym. In the evening, she’s in New York City fencing for four hours.

“I just keep going,” she said. “I don’t want to get to a competition and lose a bout, because I didn’t work out that extra hour.”

You can see she’s super-competitive, hating to lose, constantly critiquing herself. She’s all business for this once in lifetime shot, but Muhammad does pause for what’s important.

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.

It doesn’t matter at this point. Muhammad has come a long way in a career that started when she was a high school freshman. She stumbled on the sport driving past Columbia High School with her mother, who could see the team practicing through the large cafeteria windows. Inayah Muhammad didn’t know what they were doing but thought her daughter should try it because the uniform would cover her body and that was suitable to Islam’s tenet of modesty for women.

“I had know idea it (fencing) would take us this far,’’ said her mom, a Newark schoolteacher. “She’s so in love with the sport. I don’t think she really understands how good she is.’’

Muhummad was an epee fencer with Columbia until her former coach, Frank Mustilli, saw she was a better fit for sabre’s combative vein. At practice one day, Mustilli said his mild mannered athlete got upset after she got hit hard and lashed out.

“She showed me a little bit of fire. She screamed and attacked,’’ said Mustilli, head of the New Jersey Fencing Alliance.

At Columbia, Muhammad also played softball and volleyball but was captain of two state championship fencing teams before going to Duke University. She became a three-time NCAA All-American, earning dual degrees in International Relations and African-American studies with a minor in Arabic.

Ibtihaj Muhammad is seen during a September practice in New York.

Ibtihaj Muhammad is seen during a September practice in New York.

After graduation in 2007, her father, Shamsiddin Muhammad, said his daughter’s passion for fencing did not wane. The family supports her financially and she chipped in what she could last year as a substitute teacher at Shabazz High School in Newark and fencing coach at Columbia.

“I know this is her dream and inspiration,’’ said her dad, a retired Newark cop. “We believe that what is written is going to happen.’’

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.’’

Original post: Carter: Maplewood woman could be first American Muslim to wear hijab while competing at Olympics

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10 Comments »

  1. She is what makes America great. In addition to being well-spoken, she’s a talented, hard-working athlete. Brava!

  2. No, SHE is NOT what makes America great. What makes America great is it’s freedoms.

    Refugees from all over the world dream of living in America because of it’s freedoms & tolerance. Only in America could a woman so obviously oppressed by her belief system, be allowed to flaunt that symbol of oppression and be allowed to participate with it in the greatest athletic event in the world. That is called tolerance, something islam would do well to embrace.

  3. Anonymous,
    Not u again. Wearing the hijab is not oppression in Islam. It is a code of how to dress. Even the Bible tells women to cover their heads (First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 11. Read verses 3-10). Mary (Peace be upon her) is considered the best women in creation in Islam, and is the only women to have a chapter of the Quran named after her (Surah Maryam). You made the lame excuse that the hijab can cause safety hazards. That is lame. How many women are at risk by being strangled by a dough mixer? Why not talk about rape victims? I’ve noticed the majority of rape victims in America are the women who wear the most revealing cloths. Whoa, this is the freedom you were talking about? The number of rape victims increases every year. I suppose you think a women who looks sexy is a women to be praised, but if a women chooses to cover up because she wants to be modest, and does not want to be stared at by strange men, you say it is oppression. Your worldview is rather close minded.

  4. As far as the bible goes, I guess you haven’t heard of the enlightenment.
    The difference between the bible and koran is that most of the bible is historical while all of the koran applies today in the form it was written centuries ago. It is an instruction manual not a historical book. Christianity can be boiled down to the golden rule which unlike islam’s “golden rule” applies to all people of all religions not just Christians.

    The hijab reminds me of the black flag of jihad and is meant to be a political statement. It is not a religious mandate but a cultural method to yet again oppress women.

    “In 2003 a French survey found that 77 percent of girls who wore the Hijab did so because of threats. Women in the Muslim world have been punished by having acid thrown in their faces for not complying with similar demands. There is no way to break through this climate of coercion except by giving women and girls immunity from such demands by banning the source of it. The Burqa.
    The Burqa also exposes women to blackmail and intimidation when they deviate from the standard of full body covering. There is a rising number of cases in which women and girls who posted Facebook pictures of themselves in normal clothes have been blackmailed and threatened for it.
    As long as the Burqa remains a threat hanging over the heads of Muslim and non-Muslim women alike, no woman in Europe can truly be free from its implied threat to her person and her political freedoms.”-Daniel Greenfield

  5. And as for “I’ve noticed the majority of rape victims in America are the women who wear the most revealing cloths. ” It is a well known fact that muslim men all over the world use the excuse of immodest dress to to account for the rape of non-muslim women. Most of the rapes in Europe , especially Sweden are are of non-muslim women by “immigrant” men (read muslim). Muslim culture teaches men to disrespect and punish women who don’t cover their bodies.

    ” I suppose you think a women who looks sexy is a women to be praised, but if a women chooses to cover up because she wants to be modest,…”

    Personaly I admire women who dress with dignity & self-respect BUT I support a woman’s choice to dress as she chooses. There are no legitimate excuses that condone rape under ANY (marriage for instance) circumstance.

  6. Whoa Anonymous,
    It seems you can’t differentiate between culture and religion. If you remembered from the Quran 2:256 you would remember that there is no compulsion in religion. You just assume the culture of the Middle East is based off Islam and you go on to say it is the “Muslim Culture” that is responsible for the oppression of women. Of course as usual you have only been listening to bloggers who are talking about radical Islam being the same as Islam. The garbage Daniel Greenfield talks about is a lie. We have approx. 70,000 converts to Islam in France yearly. (most likely, ur hatred won’t even let you glance at this site)
    http://www.discoveringislam.org/french_converts.htm
    Banning minarets and the hijab are just ways to suppress and demonize the religion of Islam. They did the same in the past with the nuns of the Catholic church. IF U CAN REMEMBER, one of the reasons the Quran tells women to wear scarves is to protect them from being looked at, molested, or raped by strange men (regardless of where they come from). You avoided giving a real answer by saying the non-Muslim women are being raped by foreign men. The hijab is meant to protect women from all strange men.
    U support a women dressing with dignity and self respect? That is the point of hijab! Yeah, right, so they large number of female French converts were all forced to become Muslims becuz they were scared.

  7. Insha’Allah this sister will win a gold medal for our country and show the world a muslim woman can accomplish her goals in worldly affairs and also follow her faith.

  8. Anonymous is typical:

    “No, SHE is NOT what makes America great. What makes America great is it’s freedoms.

    Refugees from all over the world dream of living in America because of it’s freedoms & tolerance. Only in America could a woman so obviously oppressed by her belief system, be allowed to flaunt that symbol of oppression and be allowed to participate with it in the greatest athletic event in the world. That is called tolerance, something islam would do well to embrace.”

    First, These “freedoms” and this “tolerance” are things that you do not embrace and I believe if you had your way would prevent her from competing on some basis related to your patriotic bigotry.

    Secondly, These “freedoms” and this “tolerance” exist all over the Muslim world. One only need go to Egypt, Morrocco, Senegal, Indonesia, Malaysia (to name a few) and see women in a variety of dress ranging from hijab, face-viel, and no hijab. It is clear from your statements that you have not visited the Muslim world, do not personally know any practicing Muslims, are not familiar with the Quran and diveristy of Islamic jurisprudence, and instead opt for the lazy assumption that Saudi Arabia is representative of the 1.5 billion people and the authorative religious tradition.

    Thirdly, it was Islam’s comparative tolerance and freedom (inherent to the religious tradition) that explains why the Holy Selpture in Jerusalem has remained there since Muslim occupation. It was Islam’s tolerance and freedom that explains why the Jews who were being burned at the stake under Queen Isabella sought refuge in Muslim Turkey instead of neighboring Gual (you know that bastion of the Enlightment called France).

    and

    Fourthly, does her opinion count for anything or in typical hegemonic fashion are you assuming she doesn’t know what’s good for herself and thus needs you who neither understand her nor care to do so, to show her the way? The overwhelming number of Muslims men and women are behind her because she makes us proud and we know she is contending not with negative forces from within Muslim culture but from you. You, not Muslims, the Quran, or Sharia, have a problem with her and her success. You have a problem with her success because she explodes your stereotypes. She is an African-American Muslim female Olympic hopeful thus countering the traditional American narratives that Blacks are inherently inferior and that women in Islam must underachieve to be pious. She has trained in the high-altitude Colorado mountains during Ramadan and she wears the hijab underneath her fencing helmet and she is practicing a sport that features a weapon that has been mastered by many of Muslim women going all the back to the seventh century. She is 100% Sharia compliant and secular-successful. In fact, if Islam didn’t prohibit gambling I would wager that this “oppressed woman” is doing more with her life than you.

    Lasty, These freedoms and this tolerance that you boast of are not firmly fixed in American culture. They can be uprooted. What freedoms and tolerance we have in the United States is the result of Civil Rights movements, sit-ins, boycotts, and yes martyers. Al-Qaeda or some other shadowy Muslim group did not bomb a church killing four black girls. Who’s responsible for the history of lynching whether it be in the American South or Salem witch burnings. Why was there a Montgomery Bus Boycott, a women’s liberation and suffrage movement? I idea of civil liberties is born out of America’s tradition of intolerance and the reason civil rights organizations exist today is because that tradition of intolerance which you represent is more firmly rooted in America than freedom and tolerance. So before bragging about the ideals of freedom and tolerance you should make sure that you actually believe in them yourself.

  9. To Shareef Beane aka “Not Anonymous” – because the truth is always in the light; Allahu Akbar (God is Great). To Anonymous: however you turn, whichever way you spin it, whomever your audience, you will always fall short when confronted with the truth by an intelligent individual who understands the subject and can convey terms in a manner that exposes your ignorance and bigotry while making others discount your rhetoric immediately. To my beautiful sister Ibtihaj, though I am not black as some may think, may Allah bless you, protect you and guide you as you strive to make the U.S. team. Americans are behind you, you hijab-wearing, sword-wielding black muslim woman you; make us proud.

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