Gender, Social Justice

Can we focus on Ibtihaj’s uniform and not her hijab?

We are fetishizing Ibtihaj's hijab when she's not.

This has been a big week for Ibtihaj Muhammad. She has become the first hijab wearing African-American Muslim woman to represent the US in Fencing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro Brazil.

Instead of the focus being on how she has entered and thrived at a white dominated sport and how difficult that must have been – to be the only black person, or one of a few, we focus on a piece of cloth. She has spoken about this rich white people sport, saying that she wanted to change it because it wasn’t representative of US society. That task is heavier than the weight of any hijab.

Hijab is something she has talked about saying that one of the reasons her parents suggested fencing to her was because she wouldn’t have to change her uniform because it already covers the entire body. It’s not the reason for her staying in the sport when she started playing at 13; she saw herself being part of the US fencing team when she got older. She wanted to make it more diverse for African-Americans and Muslims. She wanted to change the face of fencing.

I can hear the hyped speeches at Islamic conventions glorifying this news ‘Ibtihaj… woman in hijab.. highest status of women in Islam…’ – given by a man of course. I’m just waiting for it. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve recognition because she IS inspiring to aspiring Muslim women athletes, but she’s going to be tokenized. She has been already. Most of the headlines have said something about hijab in the title reinforcing the otherness of hijab. As though hijab clashes with a sports uniform. It doesn’t  you can actually match your hijab to your uniform and there are sports hijabs.  

If there’s one thing media and the Muslim community has in common about hijab, is their incessant need to harp on it. In both cases its ‘her hijab doesn’t hold her back from achieving’ or ‘liberated with hijab.’ The media, in particular, purports anything other than being a stay at home mother who wears the hijab as breaking tradition. There are Muslim women with and without hijab doing amazing things.

The reductionist hijab narrative is frustrating. It can either be portrayed by media as empowering or restrictive, and the decision either way seems as though it’s entirely up to the reporters. Women have borne the brunt of Muslim identity politics in the US and elsewhere, as though we need to beg for positive portrayal.

I am not in any way diminishing Ibtihaj as a hijab wearing Muslim or her commitment to stay true to her beliefs, because as a hijabi I know the exhausting stereotypes hijabis face. The pressure to be the ‘ideal Muslim woman’ or ‘perfect hijabi’ is one that is placed on us, mostly by our communities.

What I am saying is, SO WHAT if Ibtihaj wears hijab – she wears medals too. Medals that she has won over the span of 8 years, and which have led to her present ranking as 7th in the world in fencing.

The hijabi expectations both the Muslim community and media has placed on Muslim women in the spotlight is extremely unfair. I cannot speak for all hijabis but I do know that sometimes my religious community is represented through me because of the visibility that hijab brings.  What I do know is that hijab is only a part of me, and it is important to me, like many other women. But to think that it holds me back from achieving my goals, more than patriarchal interpretations of my religion or cultural misogyny, is naive and reductionist.

There are so many other barriers to success that women – regardless of whether or not they wear the hijab – face, and it’s not related to the veil.

In Ibtihaj’s words, “nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals – not race, religion or gender. I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance.”