Christy Bectel reflects on Ibtihaj Muhammad’s visit to Islamic Relief USA. Christy was a Public Affairs Intern this summer at Islamic Relief USA. She is originally from Michigan and is a senior at Grand Valley State University majoring in International Relations and minoring in Middle East Studies and German.
The morning of July 21 was a bit more exciting than usual at IRUSA as news got around that Ibtihaj Muhammad would be stopping by for a quick visit. Most of the staff was already familiar with the 30-year-old athlete who will be the first U.S. woman to wear a hijab when she competes at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August. Many of us had been following her journey as a rising sabre fencer and were overjoyed when she qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
However, it is not just her hijab that makes Ibtihaj Muhammad noteworthy. Her presence as an African-American woman in a largely white-dominated sport highlights the lack of diversity in fencing, a sport that is limited to those who can afford the expensive equipment and lessons. Ibtihaj is keenly aware of this; The New-York based Peter Westbrook Foundation where she trains is one organization addressing this problem of access by providing fencing lessons for youth in underserved communities. Likewise, Ibtihaj’s presence as a Muslim female athlete challenges the very narrow understanding of who a Muslim woman is and the notion that Muslim women do not or should not participate in sports. The recognition and visibility she is now receiving for her spot on the U.S. Olympic Team is not only important for aspiring young girls, but also for the general public in seeing the celebrated diversity of America representing our nation at the Olympics.
The morning Ibtihaj stopped by the IRUSA office, we all gathered in the lobby around noon to wait for her. Though we received word she would be delayed, I lingered with a few others, too excited to go back to work and not wanting to miss her entrance. From overhearing animated conversations, to reading the encouraging messages in a card being passed around, I could sense a feeling of pride among the staff. Ibtihaj Muhammad represents so many different communities, admirable qualities, hard-won struggles, that we all see in her a symbol of progress at this moment in our nation. In a time when hateful and disturbing political rhetoric can make it seem like our nation is regressing, this progress is something to hold on to.
When she did arrive, the whole office broke out in cheers and applause as she walked inside the doors. After pictures, a brief meeting, and a few video recordings, she departed for the next engagement in her busy schedule in the run-up to Rio. We hoped to send our encouragement and support with her.
Ibtihaj, you make us proud. From all of us at Islamic Relief USA, we’re rooting for you.