Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a 30-year-old Muslim, will become the first American woman to compete in the Olympic Games while wearing the traditional Islamic headscarf known as a hijab.
The articulate 30-year-old African-American Muslim was catapulted to prominence in January after clinching her place on the US Olympic team at the World Cup in Greece.
Muhammad’s participation in Rio comes in the midst of a US presidential election campaign marked by anti-Islamic rhetoric, with incidents of threats and vandalism at mosques reaching an all-time high last year. The ugly atmosphere is all-too familiar for Muhammad, who has faced discrimination since childhood, when her skin color and hijab would often draw stares or abuse.
“It’s a tough political environment we’re in right now,” she told the media at a U.S. Olympic Committee summit in Los Angeles. “Muslims are under the microscope.”
Across the room, Alexander Massialas — the top foil fencer in the world — looks at all the reporters surrounding his teammate and shakes his head.
“It has to be tough, but she’s handling it extremely well,” he says. “She’s never been one to shy away from a fight.”