Tuesday, 31 January 2023

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First Muslim-American woman to win an Olympic medal unifies women of Islam at UCF

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A sea of women wearing hijabs filled nearly every seat in the Pegasus Ballroom Wednesday night as Olympian sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad spoke on sports, race, gender and religion.

UCF’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) partnered with the Florida Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Florida) to organize the event, Women in Islam. It was one of the final events of MSA’s Islamic Awareness Month at UCF.

Muhammad, a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team, recently took home a bronze medal during the 2016 Summer Olympics. This made her the first woman Muslim-American athlete to earn a medal at the Olympics. Her message to the audience Wednesday night was about the strength of Islamic women and the value of religion.

“I believe each of us has something inside ourselves we were given from Allah,” Muhammad, 30, said. “We owe it to ourselves to use this gift and give back to our community.”

Muhammad was the first woman to compete for the United States wearing a hijab, but she said she is upset she had to be the first.

“I hate that I’m the first Muslim woman and person of color to represent the fencing team,” Muhammad said. “I wish there was someone like me when I was little to look up to.”

Muhammad said it was the uniform that originally drove her to join a high school fencing team.

“I remember as a child my parents always having to alter my uniforms,” Muhammad said. “It was important to them, and me, to have a uniform that allowed me to practice my faith.”

Although Muhammad didn’t originally have an affinity for fencing, her success drew dozens of young Muslim girls Wednesday night.

Maha Qureshi, a senior majoring in communication sciences and disorders and president of MSA, said she hopes the event will eventually inspire Muslim women and girls everywhere.

“We are your teachers, we are doctors, we are engineers, astronauts and we are Olympic medalists,” Qureshi, 23, said.

Along with Muhammad, the event featured CAIR Florida’s Orlando regional coordinator, Rasha Mubarak and a presidential Democratic campaign employee, Sister Yemen*.

Islamophobia, the current election and the incident regarding a Muslim woman praying in the UCF library in April were topics of discussion.

The incident occurred in the John C. Hitt Library when a student called the UCF Police Department and misidentified a woman who was praying with a Quran as a threatening woman with a possible gun. UCFPD then issued an alert stating, “POSSIBLE MIDDLE EASTERN GUN MAN/WOMAN IN UCF MAIN CAMPUS LIBRARY.  AVOID THE AREA!”

Mubarak, who worked with UCFPD alongside Qureshi after the library incident, said as soon as it happened she asked the police how to prevent it from happening again.

“We conducted Muslim 101 training with the UCF Police Department,” Mubarak said. “Not once, but twice.”

Proud to incite questions and conversations about faith, Qureshi said, the hijab is a tool of communication for her.

“I realized without wearing the hijab you can’t tell I’m Muslim,” Qureshi said. “I want that to be the first thing people see of me.”

A broad conversation of the election season was discussed, but all speakers had a similar message: to vote. Yemen is working on the Hillary Clinton campaign, and she said it is important that the Muslim community had their voices heard.

“When we go to the polls, that is our freedom, that is our right, that is our justice,” Yemen said.

After a quick Q&A, which ended up being a series of audience members thanking the speakers, Muhammad invited everyone to come to the stage so they could all get pictures with her.

Hadeel Asker, a senior human resource management major, said she was particularly impressed with Muhammad’s success in fencing.

“I loved hearing [Muhammad’s] experiences and how she got there, I loved listening to her story,” Asker, 25, said.

Although there were many more than just UCF students present Wednesday night, it was MSA President Qureshi who felt the importance of Muhammad’s message. Even though all it took was a few phone calls, to Qureshi it felt like a long process to hold this event.

“It was unbelievable, when I first thought of the event my board members laughed,” Qureshi said. “But we got her here … and it just meant so much to me.”

*Sister Yemen is not her legal name; however, she preferred to be identified this way.

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