An American Hijab at the Olympics

Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer, will make history when she competes at the Rio games.

Muhammad of U.S. prepares to compete during her women's sabre team event against Tunisia. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 30-year-old American, will wear a hijab beneath her beekeeper-like fencing mask. It’ll be the first time a competing U.S. athlete has worn a hijab at the Olympics.
Muhammad, who competes in saber fencing, became the first Muslim woman to join the U.S. team. Since then, she has won bronze medals at two out of the three World Cups she’s traveled to. This is her first Olympic Games.
Although the official U.S. fencing team won’t be announced until April, last week, at the World Cup in Greece, Muhammad earned enough points to guarantee she’ll parry in Rio. On Tuesday, this news earned her the most official of shout-outs.
On the way to his first visit as president to a mosque in the U.S., President Obama met with a small group of Muslim community leaders in Maryland. Muhammad was among the crowd. The president asked her to stand and the whole room applauded. Later, Obama said he “told her to bring home the gold! Not to put any pressure on her.”
Athletes in hijabs, whether their sport is soccer, judo, basketball, boxing, in high schools or at the Olympics, have all at some point been controversial. There were safety concerns with the traditional headscarves, and rules that sanctioned appropriate garb. Male-dominated sports have been slow to accommodate not just women, but also women with strong religious beliefs.
Fencing, however, faced few of these challenges. Its uniform covers the head, arms, and legs and this, in part, was why as a 13-year-old girl in New Jersey, Muhammad chose the sport.
“My parents were looking for a sport for me to play where I wouldn’t have to alter the uniform,” she told BuzzFeed.
Duke University later recruited Muhammad for its team. After she graduated, she decided to stick with fencing, she said, because “it’s always been a white sport reserved for people with money.” And she wanted to shake it up a bit.
There’s been a lot of that in other sports, too. In 2011, FIFA, soccer’s governing body, blocked the women’s Iranian soccer team from its qualifying match because the players wore hijabs. FIFA said it was too risky, and might cause head or neck injuries. It was a decision that prompted then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to call FIFA leaders “dictators and colonialists who want to impose their lifestyle on others.” In 2012 FIFA decided, as an experiment, to allow the hijab for two years. In that time, none of its dire predictions came true and FIFA eventually lifted its hijab ban.
The year 2012 and the London Olympics were momentous for the hijab in sports. It was the year Aya Medany, the Egyptian pentathlete, competed in a hijab. It was the first year Saudi Arabia sent (partly due to threat) women to the Olympics, including a judoka as well as an 800-meter runner, both of whom wore hijabs. And it was the year the hijab-wearing Khadija Mohammed competed in weightlifting, something only possible because her six-woman team from the United Arab Emirates had pushed the sport to ease its dress code rules.
This thawing has even opened a new sportswear market. There’s a breathable and sweat-whisking hijab for runners; fleece-lined versions for the outdoor sports enthusiast; and, of course, the—now FIFA approved––soccer version. Even the House of Fraser, the British department store, sells “sporty hijabs.”
In just the past five years, much of the world has changed the way it allows Muslim women to compete in international sports. Now, with Muhammad, the U.S. has joined.