Race of her life

Hurdles on the track were not the only obstacles on runner’s path to Olympic gold

Dalilah Muhammad won a gold medal for Team USA in 2016, but her athletic feat wasn’t celebrated as an achievement for Muslim women. Why not?

Dalilah Muhammad poses during the podium ceremony for the Women's 400m hurdles during the athletics event at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 19, 2016. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Dalilah Muhammad got out fast in the finals of the 400-meter hurdles, and never let up. Over the 10th and final hurdle — hair streaming behind her, pulling ahead with every stride — she flew to the first-ever Olympic gold medal by an American woman in that event. Photographers scurried to capture the moment, and fans went wild, as did her father’s cellphone.

“Muslims from all over were calling me,” Imam Dr. Askia Muhammad recalled in an interview with Women in the World. “The symbolism of her win was so significant. It inspired the Muslim community. Nobody mentioned that she was not covered.”

Though he’s no expert in track, the elder Muhammad played a critical role in Dalilah’s success, a journey that started before she ever stepped onto a track, and continues well beyond the finish line. Her parents allowed her the freedom as a young child to define what it meant to be Muslim, and how to live that definition in today’s world. The daughter of an imam, Dalilah didn’t learn to follow rules, but rather was challenged to devise her own moral code. In that way, her father says, she exemplifies modern Islam, which, like Dalilah, looks different than the Islam many are used to seeing.

American sprinter Dalilah Muhammad leads Ashley Spencer of the U.S. and Sara Slott Petersen of Denmark in the Women’s 400m hurdles race at the 2016 Rio Olympics.(REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

Askia Muhammad, then an imam at Masjid al Jamiyah in New York City, and his wife Nadirah kept a liberal Muslim household that extended to their parenting style. Looking back, Askia didn’t think that 7-year-old Dalilah would have even gone into the track program if he’d required her to wear a hijab and cover her arms and legs. She would have looked different than the other kids; it might have been hot, and hard to run and jump.

“You want to see what skills, abilities, and talents God gave them,” Askia said from his home in New York City. “If you put pressure on them — cultural or religious pressure — their skills will be suppressed, and we didn’t want to do that.”

Dalilah’s talents did emerge, quickly. Though most of the girls from her mosque covered up and did not participate in sports, she gravitated to the track community. At the time, she didn’t think of her family life as especially liberal — it was just normal.

“I knew I was Muslim but I didn’t feel different from my friends,” Dalilah said recently from her home in southern California. “I was doing what I wanted to do, running around with my friends at the park, and deciding things for myself under the umbrella of Islam. I didn’t realize how that freedom would shape my mind. Now, I think of girls in strong Muslim homes — a lot of things are taken off their plate before they even realize it.”

A liberal household though, did not mean anything goes. Askia admitted that he found the track team uniforms — shorts and a singlet — “troubling.” But he rejected the strict interpretation of Islamic modesty — covering everything but the face, feet, and hands — and held the view that women were obligated to interpret modesty in the best way they could. So, that applied to 7-year-old Dalilah too.

Dalilah Muhammad ran and jumped to a win the Women’s 400m Hurdles Final at the 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 18, 2016. (JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)

“The thing is, Dalilah has always tried to be the best human being and the best athlete she can be,” Askia said. “She’s trying to honor the gifts God gave her, trying to maximize her human potential. That’s being Muslim. She’s a God-conscious woman, and that’s not because of me — she was born that way. I just try not to change what’s in her.”

Dalilah was left to define her own modesty, balancing her faith with the desire to fit in at school and on the track. It was a years-long struggle made more difficult because she couldn’t share it with peers — throughout high school in Queens and college at the University of Southern California, she said she was the only Muslim woman on the track team.

“I knew my father had a problem at first with the uniforms, but I also knew it really was my choice,” Dalilah said. “I thought, if this is what all the other girls are wearing in the sport, this is what I have to wear too. I never thought about the uniform being too revealing, but I did set some personal boundaries. I only wore it when I was actually racing, not if I was just chilling. In high school, I did associate the clothing I wore with being Muslim, so I wouldn’t wear a super short skirt, or have my arms exposed too. I struggled with it. One thing that helped — I separated life outside of track and on the track.”

During those years of finding her way, Dalilah didn’t talk much about her religion, and didn’t cover up, so to others she was a track star, not a Muslim track star. That changed when she accepted that “modest” is something you are, not something you wear.

“I no longer associate what I wear with being Muslim. Once I realized that, I felt more comfortable telling people I’m Muslim. I wouldn’t have got to that point if my parents hadn’t let me work it out for myself. A Muslim woman who lives in my apartment building follows all the rules of modesty, but she couldn’t tell me what modesty is. Following rules doesn’t make you modest.”

Dalilah Muhammad was victorious in 2016 for Team USA, but when she began running track, her father, an Imam, said he found the skimpy running outfits ‘troubling.’ Still, he gave Dalilah the space to define her own idea of modesty. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Both Dalilah and her father decry compulsory covering in a significant part of the Muslim world as “a deviation from Islam that oppresses women,” but the absence of Muslim girls and women in the top levels of track here in the land of the free and the home of the sports hijab suggest there’s more to it than covering or not. Dalilah explained, it’s the freedom to not think about religion at all that makes a track champion.

“People see that I don’t cover and think that’s what allows me to compete at the top level, but that’s not it. A woman could, physically, do it covered up. But if you’re thinking about whether to cover your hair, if you’re thinking about Islamic values when you race, you won’t make it to the top level of the sport. There are so many things to think about, to get right, to be really competitive — you have to be 100 percent focused on the sport. For 52 seconds, or whatever, all those teachings, all those Islamic values that make me the person I am go out the window and don’t return until I finish. Who I am while racing and who I am outside of that are completely separate, and that’s what’s allowed me to get to this level.”

So, paradoxically, a competitive Muslim track athlete’s success, according to our country’s sole example, depends on her ability to dissociate from religion completely while racing. And that’s a tough concept for both Muslims and non-Muslims to grasp. Both the media and the majority of the worldwide Muslim community seem unwilling to accept a Muslim woman who is not visibly Muslim every second of her life.

For example, Dalilah’s Olympic gold medal was hailed by the media as an athletic triumph, not a victory for Muslim women. That honor went to fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad’s, whose appearance as the first hijab-wearing athlete on the U.S. Olympic team was touted as a barrier-breaking milestone for Muslims. Though Dalilah did not promote herself as a Muslim athlete, as Ibtihaj did, both she and her father were perplexed by the lack of attention her truly barrier-breaking performance received. Even now, Dalilah does not show up in an internet search using the words “female Muslim track athlete.” The screen is filled with images of covered athletes participating in track, not winning at the most prestigious competitions.

Dalilah Muhammad celebrates winning gold in the Women’s 400m Hurdles Final at the 2016 Olympic Games on August 18, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

And while the elder Muhammad’s phone lit up with congratulatory calls, there are plenty of imams in this country who flatly dismiss the idea that hijab is not required of Muslim women, and that a woman can decide for herself what modesty means.

“Honestly, I just think the world isn’t ready for it,” Dalilah said. “Teachers [imams] have told me I’m not a real Muslim. I never realized that my father is in the minority, and that he’s faced a lot of conflict over his views. The Islam I was taught as a kid is not the one that’s widely accepted, and I don’t know how to change that.”

One thing Dalilah and her father are sure of — change is in the hands of parents. Askia is optimistic: “Taking risks, compromising, missing a prayer, taking the hijab off to participate in sports — God created all of us to advance society in one way or another. This is what’s happening.”

Sarah Barker is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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