Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad — who will become the first athlete to represent the U.S. in hijab during the Summer Olympics in Rio — spoke out for the first time Monday about being asked at SXSW last month to remove her hijab to take a photo.
In a video for the Players' Tribune — a website that publishes the writing and commentary of professional athletes — Muhammad discussed being told to take off her “hat” when she checked in at the media and music festival in Austin on March 12.
"At SXSW I went to check in and a volunteer let me know he couldn't take my picture unless I removed my 'hat,'" Muhammad said in the roughly four-minute video, which addressed a range of topics related to her fencing career and identity. "Those were his exact words."
She tweeted at the festival that even after explaining to the SXSW volunteer that she wore the hijab for religious reasons, he insisted she take it off in order to receive her badge.
“My initial reaction was to laugh. I thought maybe he was kidding at first. But he continued, even when I explained it was for religious reasons, he kept saying, 'Well, everyone needs to remove their hat,' essentially like I wasn't special,” she said in the video.
Muhammad asked to speak with a supervisor, and said in the video that his "immediate response was, 'Well, you are in Texas.'”
Muhammad, who regularly posts on social media about Islamophobia and discrimination Muslims face in the U.S., told the employee that was not an acceptable justification.
"And I let him know that's not an excuse," the 30-year-old said. “Where you live is not an excuse for you to be ignorant and culturally insensitive and offend people." She ultimately didn't remove it.
A SXSW spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in March that they were embarrassed by the incident and said the person who initially told her to remove her hijab was a volunteer — and was let go.
Muhammad, who is from Maplewood, New Jersey, also talked about the importance of her competing at the Olympics for the Muslim community, and how she feels about observing hijab.
“I feel as though my hijab is liberating in the sense that it allows people to see me for my thoughts and my voice, as opposed to something superficial,” she said, adding that while Muslim women are not forced to wear hijab, it was her choice.
Muhammad said she chose to shrug moments like that off — even though they're "commonplace, when they really shouldn't be" — because she didn’t want them to distract from her larger goals.
“As cheesy as it sounds, I try to lead every day with love,” she said.
Tamerra Griffin is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based Nairobi, Kenya.
Contact Tamerra Griffin at email@example.com.
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