US Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad made headlines this week when she revealed that she was detained at a US airport for two hours with no explanation when she was returning to the US a few weeks ago.
Muhammad did not claim that her detention was a result of President Donald Trump’s controversial visa and immigration ban, often referred to as a “Muslim ban.” Muhammad also did not specify where she had been traveling or the exact date of the incident.
“I can't tell you why it happened to me, but I know that I'm Muslim. I have an Arabic name,” Muhammad told PopSugar, “and even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn't change how you look and how people perceive you.”
But for Muhammad, this sense of isolation is not something new. When Muhammad played sports growing up, she always felt different. While her teammates wore tank tops and shorts, Muhammad covered up to follow her Muslim faith. Then she found fencing.
“It was the first time where I looked like my teammates,” says Ibtihaj Muhammad about wearing a fencing uniform. “And it was just this very gratifying experience for me.”
For someone who grew up idolizing American gold medalists Serena and Venus Williams, earning a place on the US Olympic team for the 2016 games in Rio was an incredible milestone for Muhammad, as well as for her country. She was the first American athlete to compete while wearing hijab.
“I wanted to challenge the narrative that Muslim women are meek and docile and oppressed,” she says. Her qualification landed her national news segments and interviews with the likes of Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres, not to mention a visit with President Barack Obama.
“I told her to bring home the gold,” President Obama said after meeting her.
For Muhammad, though, her hopes mirror those of the Williams sisters. “They never conformed to what the tennis community wanted them to be, and through their prowess they forced society to accept them as they were, and that is something that I wanted for myself within fencing.”
These days, Muhammad strives to be a role model herself, particularly in the climate of the new Trump Administration. “I'm one of those people who feels like I have to be strong for those people who may not be able to find that strength,” she told Pop Sugar. “I feel like I have to speak up for those people whose voices go unheard.”