Ibtihaj Muhammad’s new memoir begins on the first day of fourth grade. The teacher, who is finding the seven letters in “Ibtihaj” too difficult to pronounce, nonetheless locates Ibtihajj by connecting her last name (Muhammad) with the scarf she’s wearing. The teacher tells her that she’ll call her “Ibti” instead. Ibtihaj goes along with this, but she notices that her teacher doesn’t have any trouble with other longer names: Elizabeth (nine letters) and Jennifer (eight).
This story sets the tone for the rest of the book. Muhammad’s home environment was loving and supportive, but she was challenged in nearly every other space for the right to be present and to be herself: black, Muslim, and hijabi.
My journey as a Muslim woman on Team USA flipped the Muslim narrative on its head and became a source of pride for Muslims of all backgrounds. I bucked every single stereotype of the media depictions of Muslims. I was an American. I wore hijab by choice, and I proudly represented my country both on and off the fencing strip, both in victory and defeat. My journey was bigger than me. I was a vision that counterbalanced the negativity surrounding Muslim identity in the United States.
Growing up in New Jersey, Muhammad’s parents taught her and her siblings both a serious commitment to Islam and a deep belief in themselves: their parents taught them that with hard work, they could do anything. Wanting their children to learn discipline and healthy habits and to keep out of trouble, they encouraged their children to play a sport every season.
Muhammad’s journey as a fencer began when her mother spotted local high schoolers covered from head to toe at a fencing practice. The appeal of a sports uniform that wouldn’t have to be altered for Ibtihaj (with a long-sleeved t-shirt under a jersey or leggings instead of shorts) was not lost on Muhammad’s mother. It’s a powerful testament to Muhammad’s mother that when she first saw those fencers all covered in white, she didn’t see something strange. She saw an opportunity for her daughter, and she seized it.
Muhammad begins fencing in high school, and the rest of the book follows her winding path to eventually arrive at the Olympics in Rio in 2016. Something this book does really well is that it balances the amount of sports-related information. I learned a lot about fencing, but I was never overwhelmed or lost interest.
The acknowledgement of ‘firsts,’ especially in sports, was important to show not only how far we’ve come as people of color, as women, and as a religious minority, but also how far we still have to go to make our world more inclusive.
As if training for the Olympics wasn’t challenging enough, Muhammad dealt with some special challenges. One of these challenges and a major theme of the book is the micro- and macroaggressions that she had to deal with, especially from the national team during their world circuit. While traveling for tournaments, the rest of the team would go out to dinner without her (later claiming it wasn’t “official”), they would “forget” to tell her about practice, and they not only didn’t cheer for her, they were visibly disappointed when she did well in individual events.
That’s not all she had to contend with. Her frequent lack of a personal coach (due to his own life situation at the time) meant she was missing someone to cheer for her, give her feedback on her performance, and advocate for her on the strip, intervening with referees when necessary. Her ability to deal with difficult situations—like her teammates’ treatment and her coach’s absence—is truly inspiring.
When other people told me “no, you can’t,” that’s when I told myself, “yes, I can.”
As Muhammad became more visible in the public eye, she became increasingly aware of her status as a role model. Hijabi girls would approach her in public places to tell her how much they admired her or to tell her what sport they played or to ask for her autograph. She made a clear intention that her fencing was not just a sport and not just for her. She realized that she had the ability to influence a generation of young Muslim girls and to show them that there weren’t any barriers to what they could do except for the ones they put up themselves.
Her sincerity is palpable. She talks about her features in women’s publications like Allure, Refinery29, and Glamour and says, “It was empowering to help dismantle the definitions of beauty that too often erased women of color and almost never included hijabi women.”
It made me proud to know that I was actively changing the narrative for other Muslim women.
On the same day that this book is out, the publisher is also releasing a young readers edition for children 8–12. It’s called Proud: Living my American Dream, and I’m so pleased to see books about empowered Muslim women for that age group. I peeked inside of it on Amazon, and it appears to be a simplified version of the edition for adults. Muhammad’s story is so relatable for children: the first chapter opens with a scene in which a young Ibtihaj tries to convince her dad to let her go to a sleepover (he doesn’t acquiesce.) I’ve preordered a copy for my children. I’m so grateful to live in a time when there are people like Ibtihaj Muhammad and books like these to share with my children.
I highly recommend both books. They are out July 24, and you can get them here:
Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream Hachette | Amazon
Proud (Young Readers Edition): Living My American Dream Hachette | Amazon
Thank you to Hachette Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book.