America's first hijab-wearing Olympian shares the surprising story behind her fencing career

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Just after a controversial incident at SXSW, America’s first hijab-wearing Olympian appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to explain how her religious head covering helped lead her to the top of her sport.

“I tried different sports growing up, and with each sport my mom had to alter the uniform for me by adding long sleeves or pants,” said Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will represent the U.S. in fencing at the Games this summer, told DeGeneres.

The 30-year-old athlete shared with DeGeneres the surprising start to her fencing career. “We were parked at a stop light, my mom and I, when I was 12. She noticed at the local high school the kids inside had masks, long pants, and long sleeves, and she was like, ‘I don’t know what that is, but when you get to high school I want you to try it.’”


“It was always really important for my mom to keep me active. She saw how excited I was to be in sports and she wanted me to do that while observing the hijab,” added Muhammad, who grew up in New Jersey.

“The hijab literally means ‘to cover’ in Arabic,” Muhammad explained to DeGeneres. “Muslim women who observe it cover everything with the exception of their face and hands.”

Muhammad didn’t address the incident at SXSW, where she was asked to remove her hijab for her ID badge photo during registration at the Texas film and media festival. After Muhammad tweeted about the incident, SXSW apologized on behalf of the “volunteer who made an insensitive request” adding “that person has been removed for the duration of the event.”


Muhammad went on to show off her fencing skills, facing off with a show staffer Andy Zenor. We don’t have to tell you who won.

The Olympics start August 5th in Rio.

Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."