Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad says ‘religious freedom is a human right’ after proposed France hijab ban

Megan Sims
·4-min read
US Ibtihaj Muhammad reacts  during the womens team sabre bronze medal bout between US and Italy as part of the fencing event of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, on August 13, 2016, at the Carioca Arena 3, in Rio de Janeiro. / AFP / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV        (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
Ibtihaj Muhammad during a fencing event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ibtihaj Muhammad won't stand for Islamophobia in France.

Muhammad, who is a member of the U.S. fencing team and the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics in the country's history, shared a photo of herself in her fencing garb donning her hijab. Alongside the image, she wrote about the French Senate passing an amendment that would ban women from wearing their hijabs in public, which would affect Muslim athletes who would also be prohibited from wearing them at competitions, including nationally. She also opened up about the challenges she's faced being a Muslim athlete.

"Being the first Muslim woman in hijab on Team USA was a journey riddled with obstacles, but never was I denied the opportunity to play sport because of my faith. Religious freedom is a human right. It’s painful to see how far France has digressed and how normal virulent xenophobia has become," she wrote in the caption. "My first world championships was actually in Paris, France. It was held at the Grand Palais and one of my most vivid memories of that competition was the support I received from all of the French Muslims in the stands — my hijab serving as a marker of the faith we shared."

Muhammad also gave thanks to Les Hijabeuses and Lallab, organizations that fight for the rights of Muslim women for their work against Islamophobia.

"Every woman should have the choice to wear what she wants and the opportunity to play sport, regardless of her faith. We must stand together and vehemently denounce discrimination in all of its forms. Thank you to my French sisters @leshijabeuses and @assolallab who continue to push against anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic legislation, helping to defend not only the rights of Muslim women in France, but for women around the globe," she concluded.

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Fans, including celebrities like Katie Couric, took to the comments to praise Muhammad for shedding light on the issue and to denounce the French ban.

"I cannot like this post enough," Couric said.

"Such a shameful agenda, the French government and Senate has! Hijabs are harmless!" a fan wrote.

"How are Muslim women expected to participate at the Olympics held in France? This is maddening. Keep pushing the fight. I heard you on a panel talk last week and you were so inspiring," someone added.

"You are an inspiration for so many!!" Someone continued.

According to Al Jazeera, an amendment was passed in the French Senate that would make it illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to wear a hijab — or any "conspicuous religious sign by minors and of any dress or clothing which would signify inferiority of women over men” — in public. 

Though the ban is not yet in effect, social media users coined the hashtag #HandsOfMyHijab and #FranceHijabBan to continue to bring awareness to the issue. France's recent actions follow the country's ban on full-face Islamic veils in 2011. In 2018, the U.N. called the ban a violation of human rights.

Muhammad, who is the first Muslim-American woman to win an Olympic medal, has never shied away from speaking about her experiences with Islamophobia among other prejudices as a Black woman. She has also spoken about the significance of her hijab. In a September 2019 interview with NPR affiliate WBUR, she said she believed "people have a hard time seeing things that haven't been done yet."

"And within my sport — a historically white sport — to have an African American woman climb up the ranks who also wears hijab, for whatever reason, was just never received well," Muhammad said. "And my personality, I would say, is to challenge this idea of 'no.' Why is it that people are intimidated by my hijab or intimidated by my ethnicity, and why can't we exist and have the same opportunity. So it was never a question of, 'Why am I here?' for myself anyway. I knew that I had a job to do and that was to make this space more inclusive not for me but for anyone coming after me. I wanted to get through the door and hold it open for hopefully more young girls and young boys to be in this space where traditionally we haven't been welcome."

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