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2016 has been the year of powerful, hardworking and standard-shattering females and nowhere is this more clearly seen than at the 2016 #RioOlympics! Women from every corner of the globe have been gracing our screens to show off the awesome outcome of their grueling, lifelong training. One of these superstar athletes is Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad! If you haven’t heard of this #slaying female yet, we think that it’s about time you did!

Of course, you may wonder how a fencer rose to such international stardom and why she holds the label of being such an inspiring athlete. After all, as cool as fencing is, it definitely hasn’t received anywhere near the amount of media spotlight gymnastics or swimming has.

While Ibtihaj’s accomplishments in fencing are of course, absolutely fantastic (she’s ranked 8th in the world of Sabre fencing and made it to round 16 of women’s solo fencing), that’s not why she’s our next favorite heroine. Besides being a woman of color, Ibtihaj is the United States’ first hijabi Olympian!

Unfortunately, when people hear the words “hijabi” or “muslim woman” today, the first of many images or words to pop into their head is that of terrorism or oppression. Ibtijah’s wonderful achievements have rightfully thrown into question misrepresented perceptions of not only what it means to be a female , but also the religion of Islam, modern Muslims and women of color.

Because let’s be real… if you thought a girl knowing her way around a sword is impressive, a supposedly “oppressed” female doing the same? THAT is a spectacle that will turn heads. And that’s exactly what the Olympics of 2016 did!

The success and popularity of Ibtijah celebrates not only female athletic achievement, but also national pride through our diversity and differences.In a report from USA Today, Ibtijah states that

“A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sports.”

She shares with the public that she is grateful for having the opportunity to crush such ideology in both Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

In another interview, the athlete adds that fencing has always been a “white male sport” for the wealthy and that the Olympics itself, has always primarily been a place for “rich white men” to compete. Ibtihaj has never agreed or let that intimidate her however.  Since she began fencing at the age of 13, she has fought long and hard to make a name for herself in America.

Her ability is self evident; when she puts on the fencing mask, there are no labels or  societal tags for her to follow; she is in every bit, just one component fighting another.  Her gender, the color of her skin and her hijab are all invisible at that point.  Only when the game is over and the mask comes off, does Ibtihaj stand tall and proud as a voice for victims of stereotypes, labels, ignorance and prejudice in sports and in everyday life.

Ibtihaj is an important reminder for every female that the only determiners of talent and fate are hard work, resilience and the confidence to be your own knight in shining armour. No person is going to walk up to you and hand you an opportunity to prove yourself or wipe away misconceptions about your identity. You are your opportunity and you are what allows every wrong stereotype to be erased.

For every black female, Muslim female, hijabi female, female athlete and every female dreamer who strives to celebrate herself and her heritage in a world that’s not always welcoming their differences, Ibtihaj is a strong reminder of the beauty of being yourself and embracing your identity as it is, instead of conforming to what others think you should be.

There is beauty in being different; no matter your background and no matter your identity. You are important and you can achieve anything you set your mind to.

While the voices that spread hate are loud and persistent, the strength and unbreakable will of women like Ibtihaj has, and will, speak louder than hateful words.

While there is much fighting left to be done, and many more firsts for women to reach, I have this to say to you: For every young woman who sees some of herself in Ibtihaj (whether it be in her amazing athletic skills, the color of her skin, the hijab she wears or the proud smile she has), know that 2016 is not only the year of beautiful strong women, but also the year for you to aspire towards your greatest goals.

Fencing knowledge or not, it’s high time all women take responsibility of being their own knight and fight to win the battle against societal limitations and misrepresentations of female identity.

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