Representing Our Truth: Guest Post by Ibtihaj Muhammad

Our featured guest author on the Mackin Community blog is Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim American woman to compete for the United States in the Olympics while wearing a hijab. She is an entrepreneur, an activist, and an author. Her memoir, Proud, received three starred reviews from professional library journals; her picture book, The Proudest Blue, received four starred reviews. In this post, she discusses the experiences that spurred her to write her picture book.

Ibtihaj Muhammad is a U.S. fencing Olympian and the author of the picture book The Proudest Blue. In this book, it’s the first day of school, and a young girl named Faizah knows it’s going to be a great day. Not only does she get to wear her new backpack and light-up shoes, but her sister, Asiya, will be wearing a hijab to school for the first time. Faizah is amazed at how beautiful Asiya looks in the blue hijab, but not all of their classmates react with the same respect. Faizah must figure out how to reconcile other people’s reactions to the hijab with the strength and beauty that the hijab represents to her.

Muhammad explains here, and in the book’s author’s note, why she wrote the story, “My hijab is beautiful. To the young girls out there reading this story…so is yours.”

I started wearing a hijab every day when I was twelve. Though I’d worn it before, sometimes to school or for special occasions, I still faced bullying. For the first time in my life, I realized my faith and how I choose to express it had the power to change how people treated me, often like an “other.” That feeling of being “other” continues to be a reality. It took time for me to arrive at a place where I could ignore the haters. I learned to keep moving forward despite their best attempts to take my perceived differences and use them against me, to tear me down. It wasn’t easy to get here. The feeling of being “other” is a reality for so many children of color, Muslims, and those who are both like me.

This is another reason why I wrote this story. I wanted children who looked like me to see themselves in the pages of a picture book and know that they are not alone; there are people—both in real life and in books—who look like them and who live similar lives to theirs. Representation in books is so important. My book is a story of family, love, and faith— to be proud of who you are and where you are from. It’s a personal story for me, and I suspect that it’s a personal story for many young readers out there. I hope that this story continues to resonate with readers around the world, and that they feel less alone after reading it.

As educators and librarians, you are in a unique position to foster inclusion and a sense of community among the young people under your care each day. I hope The Proudest Blue cultivates an inclusive and welcoming space in the classroom, the library, and the home. I also hope it helps your students see that the parts of themselves that make them appear “different” are worth celebrating. That is one of the topics I talk about when I visit schools as well.

I’ve always felt it was important for me to share my story of resilience and perseverance. Whether I was facing bullies at school or on the fencing strip, I pushed forward, and I achieved the impossible. I want people, young and old alike, to know that their dreams are within reach, even if the road to achieving them is long, hard, and full of others’ doubts. Be brave. Be bold. Know that with faith and hard work, anything is possible.