The Defenders

Ibtihaj Muhammad

“I think that it's important for people to know and especially Americans to know that Muslims are an integral part of our society. We are no different from anyone else in terms of the things that we do. The only difference in a sense for me as a woman is that I wear hijab.”

Ibtihaj Muhammad was born in Maplewood, New Jersey in 1985. She started fencing at the age of 13. According to her father, fencing was a sport that was uniquely accommodating to her Muslim religion, which requires her body to be fully covered. Muhammad recalls struggling to feel accepted in a sport that has historically lacked diversity, because she is both a Muslim and African American. She drew inspiration from the Williams sisters and their confidence playing tennis, but she couldn’t find any female Muslim athletes to serve as role models. Today she feels that her sense of alienation helped make her into an award-winning athlete.

From an early age, Muhammad aspired to be the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympic Games in a hijab. She became a 5-time Senior World Medalist and World Champion. In 2016, she achieved her goal of competing at the Olympics in a hijab and won a bronze medal. She was a 3-time All American at Duke University before graduating with a dual major in International Relations and African Studies in 2017. Later that year, Mattel launched their first hijabi Barbie, modeled in her likeness, as part of their “Shero” line. In 2018, Muhammad released a memoir, PROUD: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream.

In addition to being an outstanding athlete, Muhammad is an entrepreneur and activist. In 2014, she launched her own clothing company, Louella, which aims to bring modest, fashionable and affordable clothing to the U.S. market. Today, she is a sports ambassador with the U.S. Department of State’s Empowering Women and Girls through Sport Initiative, and she works closely with organizations like Athletes for Impact and the Special Olympics. She also works with the Peter Westbrook Foundation to mentor inner-city kids through fencing. Named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential list, Muhammad is an important figure in a larger global discussion on equality and the importance of diversity in sports.


The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution focuses on religious freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Freedom of religion is also protected under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, members of religious groups often face discrimination and alienation in American society. This has been especially true for Muslims since 9/11.

More than 15 years after the 9/11 attacks, Islamophobia is on the rise in America. Anti-Muslim hate crimes are approximately five times more frequent than they were before 2001, according to the FBI. There have been increasing reports of mosque vandalism and attacks against those believed to be Muslim. In December 2015, President Trump called to ban all Muslim travel to the U.S. This type of rhetoric fuels fear and hatred, making it harder for people like Ibtihaj Muhammad to embrace and express their religious identity.

In addition to advocating for her religious identity, Muhammad also advocates for ethnic diversity in athletics. In her sport of fencing, significant progress has been made at the collegiate level in the U.S. Per the NCAA Demographics Database, between 2008-2018, the percentage of non-White student-athletes competing in women’s fencing jumped from 35% to 53%. However, other women’s sports still reflect a significant lack of diversity. Only 22% of female swimmers and 25% of female soccer players in 2018 were non-White.


  • Read an interview with Ibtihaj Muhammad here.
  • Read more about sports and religion in America here.
  • Review statistics about diversity in U.S. college athletics here.
  • Find links to organizations that promote religious freedom here.


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