Teen fencer Saifa Khan is one of several young female athletes training with the Peter Westbook Foundation on a weekend morning at the Fencers Club in Chelsea.
The 17-year-old’s interest started with the 2016 Rio Games in which Muhammad captured a bronze medal in the team saber event, wearing her hijab while opening doors and minds.
“I was like, ‘Wow. Someone who looks like me is on TV,'” explained Saifa, who joined the program in September 2017.
“I’ve never seen that before. Representation really matters to me and I feel like if I see someone doing something I want to do, it’s more attainable for me. … I felt more motivated to be able to do this because she was such a big icon for me to look up to.”
Ibtihaj success is not only impacting young Muslims.
According to Donald Anthony, an African-American who is USA Fencing president and chairman of the board, said she was rewriting the rules of fencing.
“Ibtihaj, I will not say changed the sport of fencing, but she had a major impact on the sport,” said Anthony.
“When you look at what an Olympic team looked like in the early 1920s and the 1940s, those eras, there weren’t a lot of people who look like me.”
The effect was not only on Muslims.
Fellow Westbrook fencer Sarah Ellis, 15, said there was no doubt that Muhammad’s success altered the sport’s demographics.
“More and more kids have started coming to the club wearing hijabs, like Saifa Khan,” said Sarah, one of five family members to train at the foundation.
“I think it’s amazing. [Ibtihaj] is an icon for Muslim girls who want to get into sports … [but] don’t think they can do it because of what they have to wear or how they look.
Saifa hopes other Bengali girls will join the sport.
“The fact that only one woman with a hijab has been on the US Olympic team shows that sometimes people who look like me aren’t always invited to the table,” she said.
“But we have to bring our own seat, as [the late US Rep.) Shirley Chisholm famously said.”