Last summer, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first American athlete to compete for the U.S. in the Olympics while wearing a hijab, taking home a bronze medal as part of Team USA in the team sabre event.
But she didn’t stop at that accomplishment. Muhammad has been a key player in the fight for recognition of American Muslim women, both in and out of sport. She has her own fashion brand, and she’s recently been on the front lines of opposing the Trump administration’s travel ban.
Now, she’s using her voice to amplify a powerful message about what it means to be an African-American Muslim woman in America.
In an open letter to Donald Trump, Muhammad painted a positive version of what America should look like — one defined not by fear and distrust, but rather by hope and acceptance — and urged the president to represent all Americans equally.
“I am the picture of the American Dream — a public school kid, with loving parents who told me that with hard work and perseverance, I could be whatever I wanted to be,” she wrote. “By believing in myself and refusing to take no for an answer, I have broken barriers and shattered stereotypes.”
Growing up in New Jersey, Muhammad had to face two forms of discrimination, the New Yorker reports: one as a practitioner of Islam, and the other as an African-American. She began fencing at age 13 — partly because it was a sport in which she could compete comfortably while wearing a hijab — and fell in love with it.
She faced more than her fair share of challenges in paving a path in the predominantly white sport.
“Not many people looked like me,” she told the New Yorker. “There were no role models. When I competed in local tournaments, there were often comments about me—being black, or being Muslim. It hurt.”
By excelling in both her studies and in her sport, Muhammad bucked these odds, attending Duke University and later joining the United States National Fencing Team in 2010.
“I was a black Muslim woman in a little known sport,” she wrote in her letter to Trump. “And on the world’s biggest stage, I defied labels and showed the world that being Muslim was also being American.”
Despite her excellence in sport, Muhammad has continued to be profiled and stigmatized as an African-American Muslim woman. In her letter, she expressed concern that the vitriol stemming from Trump’s travel ban has seeped into everyday life.
“Your ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries and Syrian refugees has implications that are felt far beyond the countries listed,” she wrote in her letter. “I am referring to implications not only in the courthouse, but in line at Starbucks.”
The numbers back up this statement. In fact, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiment began to emerge well before the election of Donald Trump. For example, a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center has showed a startling increase in anti-Islam hate groups in the United States — from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016.
Rather than let the rising antipathy get to her, Muhammad is trying to promote a message of positivity and solidarity going forward.
“As an African-American Muslim Woman patriot, my religion commands me to remain hopeful, to believe in our ability to fight bigotry with love and draw our strength from diversity,” she wrote. “That is what makes America great. Time and again.”