SHAFAQNA- By Jareen Imam and Keith Allen CNN
She hasn’t earned an Olympic medal just yet, but fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is already making history.
The 30-year-old Maplewood, New Jersey, native will be the first U.S. athlete to compete in the Olympic Games in a hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women to show modesty.
It’s been quite a few days for Muhammad. Last week, she clenched a spot on the U.S. Olympic team during an event in Athens, Greece. And not to bury the lede, but President Barack Obama gave her a shout-out on Wednesday while delivering a speech at a mosque in Baltimore.
Obama asked Muhammad to stand up for a round of applause and gave her some words of encouragement. “Bring home the gold… No pressure,” he said.
The three-time All-American from Duke University was one of several Muslim community leaders who sat down with Obama for a roundtable discussion about the state of Islam and Islamophobia in the United States before his speech.
“It’s a struggle to be a Muslim woman right now. For all Muslims in our country,” Muhammad told CNN. “We are at an interesting crossroads I think. It could get bad here.” She’s worried that if the negative rhetoric against Muslims doesn’t change there will be more situations such as the Chapel Hill shooting, where three Muslim students were gunned down allegedly by their neighbor in February 2015. Many American Muslims claim it was a hate crime.
Muhammad said she is honored to be representing not only her dreams, but the dreams of fellow Americans. She hopes she can be a role model for future athletes, especially Muslim Americans.
“There are a lot of African-American athletes, but I can’t think of a female Muslim woman I can look to for inspiration as an athlete,” she said. Growing up, Muhammad’s source of inspiration came from the Williams sisters and their confidence on the tennis courts.
Being an athlete wasn’t something that Muslim American parents always make a priority, she explained. “In the Muslim community, there is a sense that you are always a doctor or lawyer,” she said. The New Jersey resident started her sport when she was 13-years-old when her mother came across high school students were who fully covered, which followed Muhammad’s faith.
But when Muhammad first started off, she got the sense that fencing was generally a white-dominated sport. “Black people didn’t fence, and Muslims didn’t either,” she said. But she knew in her heart that she wanted to be a part of the U.S. fencing team when she was older.
“It wasn’t diverse enough. Being an African-American Muslim woman, I can be that change,” she said.
Muhammad will be the first Muslim woman to represent the United States in the international fencing competitions in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August.