BALTIMORE: US President Barack Obama paid tribute Wednesday to fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who in Rio will become the first US Olympian to compete wearing a hijab, the headscarf of Muslim women.
Obama’s visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque, his first to a US mosque after seven years in the White House, was to hit back at anti-Islamic sentiment even as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has demanded a ban on Muslim immigrants and frontrunner Ted Cruz has advocated Christian-only admissions.
Into this atmosphere comes Muhammad, an African-American women’s sabre fencer who has clinched a berth in August’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics after a third-place finish in Athens last weekend at a World Cup event.
“Nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals — not race, religion or gender,” Muhammad told USA Fencing in a posting on its website. “I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance.”
Muhammad was among those watching Obama speak when he called for her to stand and be recognized during his speech.
“One of the Americans waving the red, white, and blue will be a fencing champion wearing her hijab in the next Olympics,” Obama said.
“She is here today. Stand up. Come on. I told her to bring home the gold. Not to put any pressure on you.”
Obama hailed the roles Muslims play in American life as doctors, teachers, scientists and cited three US sporting legends, an iconic boxer and two retired NBA superstars.
“They are the sports heroes that we cheer for like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon,” he said.
The 30-year-old Muhammad from New Jersey was part of the US gold medal team at the world championships in 2014, the same year she founded Louella, an online women’s clothing company.
“When most people picture an Olympic fencer, they probably do not imagine a person like me. Fortunately, I’m not most people,” Muhammad said.
“I’ve always believed with hard work, dedication, and perseverance, I could one day walk with my US teammates into Olympic history.”
Muhammad, who suffered a torn hand ligament that kept her from the 2012 London Olympics, began fencing at age 13 after her mother saw fencers were fully covered as they compete and that led her to compete at Duke University and later for the American national team.
“As a Muslim female, the sport was uniquely accommodating. My religion requires that my body be fully covered and fencing did just that,” Muhammad said.
“After I graduated from college, I saw there was a lack of minorities in the sport. I recognized that I had a skill set, so I started to pursue fencing full time. I felt that it was something the squad needed. There were barriers that needed to be broken in women’s saber.”