RIO DE JANEIRO — Ibtihaj Muhammad will not be your punching bag. She will also not be your rabble-rouser, your wallflower or the knife in your political knife-fight. Muhammad just became the first American woman ever to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, and the fact she did this and did it in the Age of Trump means this is her Story, capital S, the way she is discussed in America today: Did you hear the Story of the fencer in the hijab?
But her story, lowercase s, is the story of everyday existence that she has lived for 30 years and eight months, the one she described as “four years of crying and hard work and tears and injuries” leading to these Olympics, which is how most Olympians would tell their story. You might not like her faith, her hijab, her quiet demeanor, her reluctance to go all-in on Donald Trump or the fact she went to Duke, but this is her story, lowercase s, and she will not hand you the pen.
Muhammad won her first match, but she lost her second. It happened quickly, because fencing matches are quick. She had a few bad points in succession, got too frustrated with the referee, and ended the match doing a split with one foot outside of the piste, sealing the win for France’s Celia Berder. That was it. Done. This is how most Olympic stories end.
But Ibtihaj Muhammad, who lives in New York, was not done, because when she removed her mask, there it was: The hijab. This should not matter. It has nothing to do with fencing. It is not why she is here. It does not define her achievement any more than those moments when her brother Qareeb, decked out in red white, and blue, implored the crowd to chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” whenever his sister seemed to need a boost. But the hijab did make her a Story, especially this year, whether she liked it or not.
Most sportswriters are not in the habit of asking fencers for their thoughts on presidential elections. But we live in strange times. And so there was Muhammad, still processing the end of her dream of an individual Olympic medal (she has another chance in the team event), being asked about her religion.
There was no fire. No rage. No screaming about the injustice of a proposed ban on Muslim immigrants.
“I think that anyone who has paid attention to the news at all would realize the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA,” she said. “It’s not just any team. It’s the United States of America. It’s in light of what’s going on in this country. It’s the political fuss that we hear. All these things, I feel like, kind of circle back to my presence on Team USA, and again, just challenging those misperceptions of who a Muslim woman is.”
“Do you hope Donald Trump was watching?” someone asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said.
“How can you not see that Muslims are like every other group?” she continued. “We are conservatives and we are liberals. There are woman who cover and women who don’t. There are African-American Muslims, there are white Muslims—there are so many different types of Muslims.”
The sport of fencing is violent in the imagination but artful in practice. Muhammad took her sabre and masterfully fileted each question. She drew no blood and won every point.
She did not utter a single word that could reasonably be used against her. She said she was proud to show people outside her community what a Muslim woman could do, but she also wanted to show women in her community what was possible.
She was thoughtful, sweet and undeniably likeable.
She said, again and again, what an honor it was to represent the United States.
In a city where the statue of Christ the Redeemer stands above the masses, Muhammad made a quiet, subtle case for respect. She talked about “misconceptions,” like this one: “That somebody is forcing me to wear a hijab, that I’m repressed, that I don’t have a voice.” But she did not raise that voice. It would only lead to more shouting.
She said, “At our normal events and competition, we don’t have to deal with this many people or this many press,” then paused and said, “We actually don’t have press.” It was a funny moment, a reminder of how big the Olympics really are: so much bigger than anything most of these athletes have ever seen.
Very few athletes in Rio will become famous, and it usually takes a medal to do it. Ibtihaj Muhammad has not won a medal. She gained attention by being herself. She didn’t ask for it. She didn’t come here with a political angle. She came with her sabre, her dreams and her sense of self, and she used all three to represent her country extraordinarily well. I hope Donald Trump did watch. I hope everybody did.