On The New York Times’ Evening Briefing of April 25, the newspaper highlighted key stories of Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban, Colin Kaepernick and female Olympian rights. Thirty minutes later, almost in perfect sync, Ibtihaj Muhammad entered the Concert Hall to give a talk on topics that more than ever are relevant to the Drew community.
Drew’s Muslim Student Association invited Muhammad, a saber fencer in the United States team. She gained fame for being the first Muslim-American to receive an Olympic medal, and also for being the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. The event at the Concert Hall consisted of a Q&A session moderated by Prof. Jinee Lokaneeta followed by a reception.
Muhammad came to Drew University’s campus at a critical time, where discussions around why Black Lives Matter have been raised following the vandalism of the sign in Seminary Hall. Bongiwe Bongwe (‘20) said that it cannot be overemphasized how important for her it was to hear from a woman who is committed to her own longstanding resistance, in both her private and public life because there will always be the need to challenge discrimination and marginalization as a person who identifies with intersectionality.
Through sharing her own experiences struggling with intersectionality and discrimination, Muhammad encouraged Drew students to think about the ongoing racism and Islamophobia that still takes place in the world, specifically in the United States. Muhammad talked about being followed home by a man when she was walking out of Penn Station, with him wanting to report her to the police for wearing a hijab.
She also talked about the microaggressions that she experiences on a professional level from her teammates and coaches, who saw her as secondary. There was bias against her, people did not see her as American and focused on her Muslim identity and left her out of many team activities, often “forgetting” to copy her on emails.
Ludovica Gioacchini (‘20) spoke about the importance of Muhammad’s memoir (which will be released in the summer), PROUD: My fight for an unlikely American dream, in dismantling misconceptions of how America should look. Her goal through this title is to challenge stereotypes so that people are exposed to her arguments without even having read the book.
Muhammad focused on social activism within the athletic community during her talk, mentioning her involvement in an organization connecting young athletes in social activism. It was so important to hear Muhammad speak at this time as it allowed many people to understand that there is no “rightful” place for a Black, Muslim, female fencer. She combated the social stigmas and stereotypes against the predominantly white, conservative, wealthy fencing community. This provided context for the backlash that she faces from said community.
In the context of today’s political climate, Muhammad reminds us that national pride cannot be found in passivity, but actively standing firm against injustice and exclusion. Her speaking at Drew inspires all of us to recognize the changes that need to occur to foster inclusion and acceptance in America and in a community here at Drew. Her courage and strength are admirable, and by talking to younger girls and being honest about what we have learned in our journeys so far, Aliyah Kiesler (‘18) was moved by Muhammad’s commitment to being a mentor and support system for girls in the world. As the founder of the NGO “Athletes for Impact” and the creator of the fashion brand Louella, we believe her innovation and her activism are important seeds to sow on the Forest’s soil.