Scott Fowler

Ibtihaj Muhammad’s message of tolerance looms larger than Olympic fencing loss

Former Duke fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, reacts after losing against Cecilia Berder of France in the women’s individual saber fencing event on Monday.
Former Duke fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, reacts after losing against Cecilia Berder of France in the women’s individual saber fencing event on Monday. AP

Ibtihaj Muhammad sent her message loud and clear Monday in the Olympic fencing arena, letting it fly off the tip of her sabre and ping off her mask painted like an American flag.

Muhammad didn’t win a fencing medal for the U.S. Monday, but the Duke graduate got her point across anyway. Muhammad became the first U.S. athlete to participate in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, the traditional covering for the hair and neck that is worn by Muslim women.

Muhammad won her first individual match to advance to the round of 16. Ranked No. 8 in the world in her event, Muhammad then lost to a French fencer ranked No. 9 and did a painful-looking split while losing the final point.

She still has a chance to win a medal in the team competition later in the week, but in the meantime Muhammad tried to balance the disappointment of losing Monday with the understanding that her symbolic presence on the U.S. team loomed larger than any single win or loss.

“I realize this moment is bigger than me,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad’s presence on the U.S. Olympic team gave her a megaphone, and she has used it wisely to promote sports and tolerance.

“A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices, or that we participate in sports,” Muhammad said. “I want to challenge the misconceptions not only outside the Muslim community, but also within the Muslim community. ... I want to show girls it is important to be involved in sports and to lead an active lifestyle.”

Cheering on Muhammad in the stands were about 10 family members, including her parents and most of her siblings. Said her father, Eugene Muhammad, as the competition progressed: “She’s already gold to me. This is a grand achievement. ... Believe me, the ovation inside my heart – it lights me up like a bulb.”

Her older brother, Qareeb Muhammad, led “USA! USA!” cheers from the front row of the stands during both of his sister’s matches. “She is African-American, Muslim and female, and when people have told her she can’t, all her life she has told them she can,” she said. “I’m so proud of my sister. She’s my hero.”

Double-major at Duke

Ibtihaj Muhammad, 30, is from New Jersey and began fencing at age 13 – relatively late for a future Olympian. At the time, she and her parents were searching for a sport Muhammad could play while being fully covered so she could adhere to the tenets of her faith.

She went to Duke in the mid-2000s, graduating in 2007 while fencing for three years and double-majoring in international relations and African Studies and minoring in Arabic. “Being at Duke was the best four years of my life,” she said. “If I could do college all over again, I would.”

While not a world-class fencer at that time, Muhammad steadily improved and made her first Olympic team at the relatively advanced age of 30. She said it didn’t really hit her that she had made the Olympic team until she participated in Friday night’s opening ceremonies in Brazil.

“That was one of the best moments of my life,” she said. “It was four years of crying, hard work, tears and injuries. ... All these emotions, it was almost overwhelming. It was ‘Oh my God, I did it. I did the unthinkable.’ 

A bad Monday

Monday didn’t work out as well for Muhammad, who was obviously frustrated in her performance. She whipped off her mask at the end, exposing her hijab once again. Then it took her about an hour to calm down after the loss and meet with the media. Once there, though, she was her usual poised self as she spread her theme of inclusion.

“I just want people to know that Muslims are conservatives and liberals,” Muhammad said. “There are women who cover (their hair) and women who don’t. There are African-American Muslims, white Muslims, Arab Muslims – there are so many different types.”

One of those Muslims competed for the U.S. in the Olympics Monday. And although she lost well before the medal round, Muhammad did her country proud.