Read by Suehyla El Attar
Read by Ibtihaj Muhammad
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At the 2016 Olympic Games, Ibtihaj Muhammad smashed barriers as the first American to compete wearing hijab, and she made history as the first Muslim American woman to win a medal. But before she was an Olympian, activist, and entrepreneur, Ibtihaj was a young outsider trying to find her place.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Ibtihaj was often the only African American Muslim student in her class. When she discovered and fell in love with fencing, a sport most popular with affluent young white people, she stood out even more. Rivals and teammates often pointed out Ibtihaj’s differences, telling her she would never succeed. Yet she powered on, rising above bigotry and other obstacles on the path to pursue her dream.
Ibtihaj’s inspiring journey from humble beginnings to the international stage is told in her own words and enhanced with helpful advice and never-before-published photographs. Proud is an all-American tale of faith, family, hard work, and self-reliance.
In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.
“Can’t you ask your dad? Maybe he’ll say yes this time,” my best friend, Amy, asked as we sat in her backyard. She wanted me to come to her sleepover birthday party, but I knew the chances were slim to none. The rules were pretty clear in our house: no sleepovers. But I really wanted to go! All the girls at school were having slumber parties now, and I was convinced I was the only kid at Seth Boyden Elementary School who wasn’t allowed to attend them.
“You know my dad,” I said, sighing, “but I’ll ask him anyway.”
“Just try to butter him up,” Amy suggested. “Give him a hug.”
I smiled. Abu loved my hugs.
I knew I’d find my dad in his room getting ready to go to his evening shift at the precinct. He’d gotten promoted to detective, so he didn’t have to wear his regular police uniform like he used to. But he was still a cop through and through, and he had the same strict expectations at home that he had at work. His children knew not to question his authority or bend the rules. But I still held out hope that I’d change Abu’s mind, because I really wanted to go to Amy’s birthday party.
I knocked on the door. “Abu,” I called out quietly, using the Arabic word for “father.” “Can I come in?”
I found Abu sitting on the bed, pulling on his socks. He was a big man, with such a serious way about him that I could understand why some people found him intimidating. But I didn’t. I loved everything about him, from his full, scratchy beard to the way he was willing to sacrifice anything for our family. I put a big smile on my face and, remembering Amy’s advice, walked over to him, sat on the bed, and enveloped him in a hug.
“Abu,” I said, pulling away to look into his big brown eyes. “My best friend, Amy, across the street, is having a sleepover party for her birthday and wants to know if I can go. Can I?”
Abu didn’t even pause before answering. “Ibtihaj, you know the rules. No sleepovers. You won’t be sleeping at anyone’s house except this one. It’s not safe.”
“But you let me sleep at Auntie and Uncle Bernard’s house!”
“That’s different. They’re family,” he insisted, standing up and walking past me toward the door.
I followed him down the carpeted steps to the living room. My mom was there putting my little sister Faizah to sleep on her lap. She still had on her hijab and what she called her “teaching clothes”: dark, long, wide-legged pants and a cotton tunic top. As a special-education teacher, Mom often found herself having to get on the floor with her students.
“What’s going on?” Mom asked, noting the frustrated look on my face.
“Amy wants me to sleep over at her house for her birthday, but Abu said no,” I whimpered. Then I stared at her with puppy-dog eyes, hoping she could make my dad change his mind.
She glanced up at Abu and took in what was going on between us. He wasn’t going to change his mind. Even I could tell that.
“You know the rules, Ibtihaj,” my mother said sweetly, trying to make the bad news sound better. One of the key teachings of Islam is that we should always respect our parents, so I wasn’t going to put up a fight. But I was still so disappointed. Sometimes Mommy could help make Abu see things differently, like the time she convinced him to let us keep a stray cat that we had found in the garage even though Abu claimed he didn’t like pets. The cat ran away after only a few days, but because Abu had seen how well we took care of it, he surprised us and brought home a beautiful umbrella cockatoo that he’d found wandering the streets while he was on duty. Now Koocah was a real member of our family.
“Abu, the kids who are coming to the party are just the girls from my class,” I said. “There won’t be any boys there.” According to our faith, I wasn’t allowed to hang out with boys socially, so I hoped that maybe, just maybe, this might convince Abu.
My father was collecting his keys, wallet, and glasses like he did every time he was leaving the house. He stopped moving and turned to face me. “Ibtihaj, no sleepovers means no sleepovers.” The firmness of his voice told me that the discussion was over.
He walked over to me as I began to tear up. His tone was loving as he pulled me close. “Ibtihaj, you don’t need to cry about this. It’s going to be okay.” He smoothed down the stray hairs that had escaped from my braids.
But I couldn’t stop crying. We had a lot of rules in our house. We couldn’t watch television during the week, we couldn’t listen to music on the radio, we had to wear our hijabs to school twice a week, and we prayed five times a day. Some of the rules came from the Quran—the ancient, sacred book followed by Muslims—but some, like the sleepover rule, were because Abu was protective.
I know now that Abu was strict because he loved us so much. He was a cop and saw bad things happen to good people every day. He also didn’t want any of his kids to end up where he and Mommy had come from.
Both of my parents were born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. In 1967, when they were teens, the Newark riots broke out. Newark’s black residents were protesting the city’s racism and frequent incidents of police brutality. The riots went on for five days straight, and when they were over, 26 people were dead, 750 were injured, and over 1,000 people had been arrested. Most of the victims were black. In the aftermath most business owners on Springfield Avenue, Newark’s commercial strip, didn’t rebuild and left their stores abandoned and boarded up. Most of the white people who could afford to fled the city, and soon Newark became known for its empty houses, unemployment, and poverty. Drug dealers and criminals lived on practically every block.
My mother, Denise, watched the riots, and though they frightened her, they didn’t feel totally unexpected. Violence had always been part of her neighborhood. But she had a plan to break free. Like her sister, Diana, who was eleven years older, had a good job, and lived in New York City, my mom knew she had to do well in school and stay off the streets.
My mom said her friends and relatives always made fun of her because she refused to hang out with them on the weekends. They said she was too serious and needed to learn how to have some fun. But my mother was afraid of what would happen if she partied, even for a night. She didn’t want to end up like so many of her neighbors: poor, in jail, or unemployed and hopeless. So my mother stayed home as much as she could, and when she felt like she had to get out, she’d walk just a few blocks to visit her cousin Sharon.
Sharon came from Mommy’s mother’s side of the family and was only a few years older than my mom, but she had the kind of home my mother didn’t. Sharon didn’t have violent fights with her husband, Karim, and their small apartment felt like an oasis from the chaos in the streets. In fact, it was one of the only places my mother felt safe. Karim worked as a mechanic, and he was always home by 6:00 PM, so Sharon never paced the living room wondering where he was.
Sharon was like a big sister to my mom, and their conversations flowed easily. One night, while watching Sharon prepare dinner, my mom asked her cousin a personal question. “Sharon, how did you find a guy like Karim, who’s not all caught up in the streets?”
“Girl, Karim is a Muslim,” Sharon said. “You have to find yourself a Muslim man to marry. They will always do right by you.”
“Karim’s a Muslim?” my mom asked. “Like he’s part of the Nation?” She knew that the Nation of Islam was a movement whose goal was to improve African Americans’ lives and place in society, but it had also been criticized for embracing violence.
“No, Karim says the Nation is more interested in starting a revolution than getting right with God.”
“Are you going to become a Muslim?” Mom asked.
Sharon shrugged. “I’m thinking about it. Karim wants me to, especially before we have children.”
My mom thought about how Karim respected and loved Sharon, which was so unlike the way her own father treated her mother.
“Girl,” she said with a sigh, “I’d convert in a second if it meant my husband was going to treat me as well as Karim treats you.”
It was at that moment that the thought of converting to Islam was planted in my mother’s brain. My mom started to study the Muslim men and women around the neighborhood. The men who belonged to the Nation were easy to recognize because they wore bow ties and stood in front of the storefront mosques where they went to worship. The women wore long dresses and head coverings. They all seemed so sure of themselves, so proud. My mom started to visit Sharon more often, since she and Karim were the only people Mommy could talk to about Islam. They kept an English-language version of the Quran on their coffee table, and my mom liked to flip through the pages, searching for a message that would confirm that she was on the right path.
The simple, poetic writing captivated my mother’s spirit. She fell in love with Islam and the peaceful guidance that it offered. She started thinking about God as Allah, who was the one god of Islam. My mom put her short skirts away and decided to dress modestly, as the Quran instructed. She liked the idea that by wearing long pants and long skirts, she was in control of how others saw her body. By the time my mom started college at Rutgers University, she knew Islam was allowing her to reinvent her life. Islam gave her more to believe in than what was in front of her.
Unlike my mother, my father, Eugene, discovered Islam from his siblings. He was one of the youngest of twelve children, and all his older brothers had joined the Nation of Islam before my father hit his teen years. The Nation of Islam appealed to many black men in Newark because it offered spiritual guidance in the midst of all the city’s chaos, and its message uplifted black men in a nation that discriminated against them.
Abu’s parents separated when Abu was only five, so he was attracted to Islam’s emphasis on the family and the important role of the father. Along with a group of friends, Abu founded a new mosque in East Orange, New Jersey. It was there that he first saw my mother, who had come to my father’s mosque to officially take her shahaadah, or declaration of faith. She seemed to love the religion and was dedicated to learning everything she could in the class for new converts. My father was immediately attracted to her, and sometimes he would peek into the classroom where she was reading verses from the Quran, her glasses sliding down her nose.
My father asked some of his friends to find out all they could about my mom, and he soon learned that her name was Denise but she had chosen the name Inayah when she converted. Following Muslim tradition, members of the mosque formally introduced my parents, and they went on a handful of dates to see if they made a good match. They did. My mother liked my father’s quiet sense of humor and his ambition—in addition to running the mosque, he also owned two small restaurants in Newark. My father fell in love with my mother’s beauty, her enthusiasm for life, and her love of children. She was a nurturer and immediately made my father feel comfortable in his own skin. My father didn’t hesitate to make his intentions known, first to my mother’s parents and then to her. They were married a short time later, first signing their Islamic marriage contract in a traditional ceremony, called nikah, and then later holding a more formal celebration.
As part of their new life, my parents went by the names Inayah and Shamsiddin. Their chosen names symbolized their dedication to Allah, which extended to all aspects of their lives. They wanted a big family, and that’s what they got. First came Brandilyn; then a son, Qareeb, five years later; then me less than two years after that; and within six more years, two girls named Asiya and Faizah. My parents had agreed to raise their children following Muslim traditions, so all meals would be halal, or prepared according to Muslim dietary laws, and we prayed five times a day. Hijab—which was prescribed in the Quran but was still a personal choice—would be observed for their daughters, meaning we would cover our heads when we reached our teens. No matter what, family and faith would always come first, and they did. Our home was always full of love and joy—for one another and for Allah.
My mother vowed her children would never end up victims of the streets. My father vowed we would always have a father in our lives. And so they found a spacious second-floor apartment in a quiet residential section of Newark and a private Islamic academy for us to attend. Even though it was a struggle to send their children to a private school, both of my parents were willing to sacrifice for our spiritual education. Always wanting to help his community, Abu became a police officer when I was three. He secured good insurance for us, and he and my mom saved their money. In just a few years they had enough to buy a cozy four-bedroom home in Maplewood, New Jersey.
The picturesque suburban township of Maplewood felt about as far away from Newark as you can imagine. I was five when we drove into town, passing block after block of perfect brick homes with tidy lawns and manicured gardens. When Abu stopped in front of our new house, the first thing I noticed was the green front door, which looked warm and welcoming. The house was three stories and painted white, with mint-colored shutters on the second-story windows. Everything was compact, including the small, square front yard, which didn’t look big enough for a good game of tag. Then Abu told Brandilyn, Qareeb, me, and little Asiya to get out of the car. His eyes twinkled as he said, “I want to show you something special.”
The four of us followed my dad down the long driveway to the back of the house. There in front of us was a huge in-ground swimming pool.
I wanted to jump in the water right then and there.
“Can we go swimming, Abu?” I begged.
“Ibtihaj, you don’t know how to swim,” my father said with a laugh.
“I know, but I can do a cannonball. Can’t I, Qareeb?”
“I don’t want any one of you kids even near this pool without me or your mother next to you,” my father said sternly. “But I’m going to teach you all how to swim. That’s why we bought this house.”
I didn’t know anyone who had a swimming pool in their backyard. In fact, most of my friends lived in apartments, like we always had, so no one even had a backyard. And if we wanted to play outside, our moms usually took us to the park, but even then they were always worried, telling us to keep our eyes open and pay attention to our surroundings. But this house, with grass and a backyard and plenty of room to play, was totally different. It was full of promise for a happier, more carefree life.
This promise extended to the town, too. Everything about Maplewood seemed different from Newark. Newark was gritty, with a lot of pavement and worn-down buildings. Maplewood was pure, full of trees and parks. The downtown area looked like something out of an old movie, with restaurants, cafés, bakeries, and bookstores. The park in the center of town even had a duck pond and white wooden gazebos.
My parents knew they had made the right decision to raise their family in Maplewood. In addition to the fact that it was so family friendly, with good public schools, libraries, and a community center, it was also racially and economically diverse. When we arrived there in the early ’90s, the city was approximately 59 percent white and 33 percent black. Though there was only one other Muslim family in town, and the women didn’t wear hijab like we did, I still found friends and felt at home right away. My first and best friend was Amy.
Amy had big, round brown eyes and long black hair, which she always wore in two lopsided ponytails. I remember soon after we moved in, Amy crossed the street with her mother and came to say hello. Then while our mothers talked, Amy asked me if I had a bicycle.
“Yeah, I have a bicycle,” I said. “It’s purple and pink. Pink’s my favorite color.”
“My bike’s pink, too!” Amy said with a big smile on her face. “I can’t wait to show you!”
After that, it didn’t take Amy and me long to set up a routine for playing. First, we’d grab our bikes and ride up and down our driveway, talking about all the things we were going to do when school started in the fall, and when we grew bored of that, we’d head over to her backyard and play until our moms called us in for dinner.
Not long after we moved in, Amy asked me a question. “Ibtihaj, how come your mom always wears a scarf on her head?”
No one had ever asked me that before. All my friends in Newark had moms who wore hijab. In fact, I didn’t have any friends, except Amy, who had a mother who let her hair out in public.
I had to stop and think for a minute before I could answer Amy’s question. “My mom wears hijab because we’re Muslim,” I said.
“What’s a Muslim?” Amy asked, a frown wrinkling her suntanned face.
I looked at my new friend and wondered why she didn’t know what it meant to be Muslim. “It’s our religion.”
“When you grow up, are you going to wear the same thing on your head like your mom does?” Amy asked.
I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. Sometimes I wear a scarf now for special occasions.”
“That’s cool,” Amy said, obviously satisfied with my answers. “You wanna go over to your house?”
“Yeah, let’s go,” I said, jumping up and wiping the grass from my legs. Then I looked over at Amy and smiled. Even then I realized how lucky I was to have a friend who didn’t care that I was different.
I plopped down on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my sister Asiya. Asiya was only five, but she was a good listener. My mom always joked that was because I talked so much.
“What’s the matter?” Asiya asked me as I picked up a Barbie doll from our stash. I loved playing with Barbies.
“I hope Mommy can convince Abu to let me go to Amy’s birthday party,” I said to Asiya. “Amy really wants me to be there. And I should be there because we’re best friends.”
“But we never sleep over anywhere,” Asiya said.
I shook my head at my sister. What did she know? I turned back to my Barbie, and a short time later I heard my mother calling me.
“Ibtihaj, come here, please.”
Asiya looked at me, and I smiled. I hoped my mother had good news for me. I ran down the stairs and saw her waiting for me, still seated on the couch. My baby sister, Faizah, was asleep in a rocking seat near her.
“Where’s Abu?” I asked.
“He left for work,” my mom said. She patted the seat cushion next to her, and I leaped over to the couch and snuggled up to my mom. I loved Faizah, but she took up a lot of my mother’s time, so when I got the chance, I liked to be as close to Mommy as possible. She was warm and soft, and she smelled like comfort. I loved that we looked the most alike, with our matching golden skin and hazel-colored eyes.
My mother turned and lifted my head toward her. “Ibtihaj, you know your father and I make rules to keep you and your siblings safe. It’s not safe for you to sleep over at other people’s homes when we don’t know who’s going to be there.”
“But it’s Amy’s house. You know them,” I said, trying not to whine.
“I know,” my mom answered, “but rules are rules.”
I hung my head in defeat. Amy was going to be disappointed, and once again I would be the odd one out on Monday when everyone was talking about the latest slumber party.
“But…” My mother wasn’t done. “I convinced your father that since we do know Amy and her family, and since they do live right across the street, you can go to the birthday party.”
“Yes!” I shouted, jumping off the couch.
My mother shushed me, pointing to the sleeping baby. “Don’t get too excited. I said you can go, but we will pick you up around eight thirty, so no sleeping over.”
To me this was still a win. I just wanted to be there so I’d have fun stories to tell on Monday, too.
“Thank you, Mommy,” I squealed, gave her a big hug, and dashed out the door.
Amy’s party was fun. Most of the girls from our third-grade class were there, and we played in Amy’s backyard until the sun set. Then Amy’s mom called us all in for pizza and soda, telling us we could eat as much as we wanted. After that, Amy’s mother brought in a big sheet cake decorated with pink and yellow flowers, and we all sang “Happy Birthday” and watched Amy open her presents. By the time my mom came to pick me up, the rest of the girls were changing into their pajamas and brushing their teeth because bedtime was in one hour.
Some of the other girls were sad or confused by the fact that I was leaving—and a tiny part of me was, too—but it was okay. I’d rather be with my family. Plus, the only thing about the sleepover I was going to miss was the sleeping part!
Work for the Win
Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar.
My brother, Qareeb, was eighteen months older than me—and one year ahead of me in school—and he made my childhood a big adventure. He was the person I most wanted to be like, and I made it my mission to keep up with him, even if I knew it would land us in trouble and me sometimes in tears. Whether he was daring me to jump off the top bunk of our bunk beds or racing me down the block, I was always one step behind him, trying my best to keep up. I had the quiet determination of my mother, and Qareeb had the boisterous nature of Abu and his brothers, but we were best friends. Our older sister, Brandilyn, knew to stay away from Qareeb’s rambunctious energy, Asiya was too small to keep up with us, and Faizah was just a baby, so for a while it was me and Qareeb against the world.
“Can we do it one more time?” I asked Abu one night during a pool race. I had finished just behind Qareeb that last time, and I knew I could finally beat him if I had one more chance.
“I don’t wanna race again,” Qareeb whined. “I’m tired.”
“What? You’re scared I’ll beat you this time?” I said, knowing Qareeb could never turn down a challenge.
Abu was laughing from his lawn chair by the side of the pool. “Let’s see if you’ll let your little sister beat you, Qareeb,” he teased. Qareeb dog-paddled over next to me, and we both stood waiting for Abu’s signal. I fixed my gaze on the opposite end of the pool and put my foot against the pool’s wall. Abu yelled, “Go!”
I moved my arms as fast as I could, cutting through the water. My legs were like motors, up and down, up and down; I moved just like Abu had taught me. My head was down, so I couldn’t see where my brother was, and I didn’t stop to find out. When I slammed my hand on the edge of the pool at the deep end, I heard Abu screaming in triumph, and I knew I had done it.
I paddled over to the ladder, hauled myself out of the pool, and leaped into my father’s open arms. “Ibtihaj, you did just what I taught you,” he said proudly. “You kept your head down and used those long legs of yours.”
I was ecstatic and spun my head to look for Qareeb. He was sitting at the edge of the pool looking angry. Abu waved at him to come join us anyway. “You’re going to have to work harder to beat Ibtihaj now, boy. She’s tasted victory.”
Both my parents thought of sports almost as a way of life. Abu believed that they’d give us a competitive edge, making us winners on the field and in life. He taught all of us how to swim, play baseball, basketball, and any other sport he could get us involved in. And he had us competing against one another as often as possible.
Mommy liked athletics because they kept us active and engaged with kids from school and around the neighborhood. Both she and Abu believed that sports were the best way to keep all of us kids disciplined, out of trouble, and continuing to learn outside of the classroom. That’s why I can’t remember a single time in my life when we weren’t expected to play something.
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- Jul 24, 2018
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