Ibtihaj Muhammed Creates History by Winning an Olympic Medal Wearing a Hijab
Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim woman from Maplewood, New Jersey, stood on a medal stand Saturday night, wearing a black hijab and squeezing the hands of two other women from New Jersey. The one on her left was born in Poland and had purple hair. The one on the right was born in New York and graduated from Penn State University. They were all three, a sliver of the America they represented as a bronze medal sabre fencing team. As much a story of their country as their blonde team-mate from Oregon who stood at the end and went to Notre Dame.
No American medal at these Olympics might matter as much as the bronze circle that dangled around the neck of Ibtihaj Muhammad and her team-mates. Not this summer, not when a presidential candidate says people like her don't belong in his country and doesn't appear to know what an American actually is. So on Saturday she grabbed the hand of her purple-haired teammate from Poland and her New York-born teammate who went to Penn State and they threw their arms in the air. Then they watched the American flag rise into the rafters.
"I'm hoping that through my experiences here at the Olympic games - winning a medal - that I combat those stereotypes about Muslims and African Americans, and even women," she said after her Olympics were over. "We're like any other athletes, we have worked really hard for this, and I can't think of a more deserving group of girls to go home with a medal."
She said this medal mattered more than any individual honor that could have come her way at these Olympics. She had spent too many days and months with the women on the platform beside her, working and training and pushing to get to these Olympics, to represent their country. Saturday afternoon was their last chance together, their final hope at Olympic glory. They had all fallen short in individual competitions this week. The team meet was the end. If they lost they would come home with nothing. That they came back from a semi-final loss to trounce Italy 45-30 brought a satisfaction she struggled to put into words.
"To win with this team really means a lot," she said, her voice cracking.
Again and again, Ibtihaj Muhammad said these Olympics have been about her and her team-mates. She has said she loves them dearly and wanted badly for them to leave here with a reward for the time they had spent trying to build a power here. The team's coaches even inserted Monica Aksamit, the one born in New York who went to Penn State, in the bronze medal match against Italy simply so she could claim her medal too. As the alternate, Aksamit would never go in Olympic history as a member of this team.
But the real history here was Ibtihaj Muhammad, and not just because she became the first American to compete in a hijab. The bigger history is that she didn't squander her opportunity to speak out against intolerance, that she didn't politely muzzle her voice against the screams of a political campaign that has run off the rails of common sense. Instead, she used the Olympics to show that a 30-year-old woman from New Jersey can grow up with a sports dream and fulfill it, just like Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles or the women's eight rowers who celebrated gold Saturday on the banks of an Ipanema lagoon.
"Oh, I believe so we are in a really peculiar time in our country, where people are comfortable saying things about particular groups, and they encourage fear, and they encourage violence, and I want to challenge those ideas," she said. "I feel I have to use my platform as an athlete to speak up, and hopefully provide change in this country."
She watched a lot of the coverage of Muhammad Ali's life after he died a few weeks back. Being just 30, she didn't know much about him, even though they share a faith and a spotlight and now a legacy as Olympic medal winners. She was too young to have watched him fight, and by the time she was an adult he had started his long slide from public life. Until his death he was a name and a vague concept of a battle for acceptance. Watching those videos of his speeches, hearing his story, she came to realize he was so much more.
Already, Ibtihaj Muhammad had made the decision to speak out, even telling Time magazine's Sean Gregory earlier this year “that if Donald Trump had his way, America would be white, there wouldn't be any color and there wouldn't be any diversity." But Ali's story inspired her to fight even more to make sure she didn't waste these Olympics to show her country and the world that Americans look exactly like her.
She said repeatedly in her days here that people need to see that Muslim women can be athletic, that African American women do sports like fencing, and that women should not be trapped to the home. She also said that an Olympic medal would give hope to young girls just like herself once, that they can aspire to an Olympics too and watch their country's flags rise while wearing medals around their necks.
Someone asked if she thought more athletes should speak out and she nodded.
"I don't see why not," she said. "Why not use your platform to change our condition to help make our world a better place?"
Then she smiled. Beside her stood her American team-mates, who, just like her, are pieces of a mosaic that is the United States. She wore a Team USA jacket and held in her hand a folded-up American flag. And she savored a victory that was just as American as any other in these Olympics.