Some rise to challenges; others get crushed by them. It would’ve been easy for Ibtihaj Muhammad to give in to her daunting challenges, from racism to Islamophobia to depression. But that isn’t what this Maplewood, New Jersey native is about.
In her new book, Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, Muhammad closes with a powerful sentiment that sums up not only her own struggles, but those of so many minorities in America: "I've had to fight for every win, every place at the table, every ounce of respect on my path to world-class athlete.” She then shared her next goal: “And I will continue to fight because the prize this time—an America that truly respects all of its citizens—is worth more than any medal. Inshallah: so, may it be."
“Inshallah,” for those who unfamiliar, simply is Arabic for, “God willing.” We, Muslims, love to use (and overuse that word.) For some it can mean, I will sit back and hope God will make it happen. But for those like Muhammad, it means you need to go out and take it.
“Some wait for a seat at the table,” this bronze medal-winning Olympian explained to me in an interview, “[but] I don’t need a seat. I’m pulling up a chair and telling you I’m here whether you like it or not.”
That philosophy drove Muhammad to excel in challenge after challenge. For starters, she was the only African American student in her school in New Jersey. Add to that, she’s Muslim, and by high school she began wearing a hijab—the simple scarf head-covering—making her even more different from her classmates. And then she became a fencer, which again posed obstacles, given it’s a sport with few people of color at the top levels.
But none of this deterred Muhammad from her Olympic dream. She climbed to the 7th-ranked female fencer in the world in 2015-2016, notching individual and team medals at world championships in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, Muhammad made history as the first Muslim American woman wearing a hijab to make the U.S. Olympic team. And while she didn’t win an individual medal, losing in the second round, she soon made history again becoming the first Muslim American woman to ever win an Olympic medal as the U.S. Team won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio games. The picture of a hijab-wearing Muhammad biting the bronze medal, as Olympians traditionally do, went viral thrusting this iconoclast to new heights.
Since then, she was named by Time magazine to its 100 most influential people of the year and there’s even a new Barbie doll made in her likeliness—complete with a toy sabre and hijab.
Again, another first.
Muhammad candidly admits that even she is surprised by some of her success, explaining, “When I look back on the obstacles and hurdles in my life, sometimes I wonder how I made it through the arduous moments.” And there were indeed some very “arduous moments.”
After graduating from Duke University, she supported her dream of making the 2012 U.S. Olympic team by working at a Dollar Store and as a substitute teacher. Despite being a three time All-American at Duke and her tireless training, Muhammad didn’t qualify for the 2012 Olympic team. That type of setback may have led a lesser person to put her Olympic dreams on the shelf and move on to a more traditional life. But she persevered and finally at age 30 made the 2016 team. “Qualifying for the Olympic team was in some ways more fulfilling than winning medal,” she explained.
The challenges for Muhammad, however, were far from over. As she became more visible given her success, she was subject to anti-Muslim hate. Once she was even followed by man after a practice who accused her of being a terrorist with a bomb.
More surprisingly, however, she even suffered challenges on the U.S. Olympic team she had worked so hard to make. Muhammad explained in her book of being made to feel like a “second class citizen” by her coach and teammates. As Muhammad described in her book, her challenges ranged from social slights such as her teammates going to dinner and not inviting her to those that impacted her sport such as her coach accusing her of being lazy or slacking off during Ramadan when she was fasting. “I think my team viewed me as so different from themselves that they didn’t know how to relate and they weren’t willing to put the effort in to figure it out,” she writes.
And while on the outside Muhammad was fulfilling the American dream, she was actually suffering in silence from a new, potentially devastating challenge: depression. As the Jersey native candidly shared, “the long periods of sadness and fatigue” felt unshakable. Soon her depression began manifesting in performance anxiety before big fencing events. But with professional help and the support of her family, she was able to cope with it.
Muhammad has a loud message for those suffering from depression: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help!” She added that “seeking help from a medical professional was one of the best decisions of my life,” allowing her to become the best version of herself.
But Muhammad has broken more than just Olympic barriers. There’s another place she’s having an impact that’s not as visible: within the Muslim American community. Typically, speakers at Muslim American events in the past have been men, primarily of Arab and South Asian heritage. But that’s been changing in recent years with organizations increasingly inviting African American Muslims to be keynote speakers. African Americans represent the biggest part of the Muslim American community, but they’ve not always been welcomed by some immigrant Muslim leaders.
And now Muhammad is taking that a step further by often being the first black woman whom American Muslim groups have featured as the “star” of the event. This is a great trend that appears to be getting increasing support within the Muslim American community.
Overall, Muhammad’s greatest hope is that her story will inspire young women and girls of all backgrounds to go after their own version of the American dream. “It’s not always going to be easy, and you will fall at times,” Muhammad noted, adding, “it’s what you do after the fall that is most important.” That very lesson is fueling her to achieve her next dream of an America that truly respects all of its citizens. That’s a dream that sadly in today’s America seems more daunting and unreachable than winning an Olympic medal. Despite those long odds, however, one thing is clear from her track record: Muhammad won’t be giving in to this challenge any time soon.