Ibtihaj Muhammad Book Review of “Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream,”

A year or so ago, I had no idea who Ibtihaj Muhammad was, I had never heard of her, maybe because I’m not interested in fencing or because I’m not interested in Muslim ‘celebrities’. However, when I saw the cover of her book ‘PROUD’, my interest was piqued.

This is one book you can judge by its cover. How many books have you EVER seen with a strong black, confident, Muslim woman wielding a sword? None. So, straight away I knew this book was going to be something unique.

 

Before I delve into the review I must share a general point regarding reading about the lives of the rich and famous. It’s certainly possible to learn lessons from their experiences, however we shouldn’t start comparing ourselves to them or thinking they are better than us. Moreover, we shouldn’t blindly emulate them as they are normal, fallible, people, just like us. As Muslims we need to remember our role model is the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), he is the one that we copy because he is our guide and the messenger of Allah, who came to show us exactly how to live our lives.

Normally, I never read celebrity memoirs. They are too self-absorbed and narcissistic for me. Actually, the last autobiography I read was Malcolm X’s but I don’t see him as a celebrity: quite the opposite. Surprisingly, once I started reading Ibtihaj’s book, I stopped seeing her as a famous person but rather more as my sister. Out of the blue, incidences in her life kept popping up that I could relate to and I am sure you will too. For example, school teachers couldn’t be bothered to pronounce her name properly. I’m not sure if that’s due to laziness or prejudice but I do know how annoying and demeaning it is to have your name mispronounced over and over again!

Many muslim women can relate to her strict upbringing, her Muslim parents were protective and didn’t allow her to have sleepovers, just like mine. As a parent, now I’m on her parents’ side but I can totally understand how “different” she felt growing up as a hijab wearing, teenage girl in USA, just wanting to fit in with her non-Muslim friends. By the way, with hindsight I’m so happy I wasn’t allowed to go to sleepovers.

For me there are two stars that shine brightly in this book and they are Ibtihaj’s parents. They both spent a lot time with their kids, encouraging them to do well it in their studies and sports and gave them a strong Islamic grounding. It would have been so much easier for them to raise their kids to fit in with their non-Muslim friends but they saw what life was like for people who did not have Islam in their lives. They had witnessed the unhappiness that a life governed by ‘freedom’ could lead to and the misery of alcoholism. Her mother didn’t want to let herself “run loose” and “Rather than find out what temptation tasted like” she “sought stability” in Islam.

I learnt a great deal from Ibtihaj’s parents. Today, Muslim parents (especially me!) fear being labelled ‘strict’ but if we don’t teach our kids the basics of Islam and correct them when they are choosing to disobey Allah (and not us) then what kind of Muslim parents are we? One incident, in particular, resonated with me. When Ibtihaj was in middle school she had to deal with abuse purely because she wore hijab. So, one day she asked:“Mommy, do I have to wear my hijab today?” I asked once, early one morning after getting dressed. “Yes, you have to wear it,” my mother said. “It might be hard at times, but remember all of this is Allah’s plan. And I know it feels hard for you now, but I promise you as you get older, you’ll understand that wearing hijab is a gift, not a punishment.”

Some people would accuse her mum of being harsh or extreme for giving her daughter that answer. However, I completely agree with her mum. Nowadays, the politically correct thing to say to our girls is “hijab is your choice” Let me ask you this, would you say to your child “salah is your choice”, or “fasting is your choice”, or “eating halal food is your choice”, or “drinking alcohol and taking drugs, it’s your choice”.  You know you wouldn’t.

Her mum taught her a valuable lesson that day: don’t compromise when it comes to obeying Allah. Strong confident Muslimahs don’t just magically appear. They are nurtured and raised by strong confident Muslim parents. Kids will always choose the ‘easy option’, but we can’t give our kids the choice to disobey their creator. What we should do is spend time giving them a strong Islamic foundation, explain how we are created, how we know the Quran is the word of Allah and how we know that Muhammad (saw) is a messenger of Allah. Inshallah if we can give them confidence in the sources of their Deen (way of life). Then they will find it easier to follow the rules Allah has given them to lead a more productive and happy life.

I was impressed by Ibtihaj’s will power, as a teenager she didn’t follow the crowd, she chose to become a fencer, even though it wasn’t ‘cool’ and none of her friends would be with her, she says “I had to make a choice, follow my friends or stick to my plan… because my plan was going to take me places.” She suffered discrimination because of her gender, ethnicity and religion however she decided, “I just had to stay focused on my goal and ignore any haters—both real and imagined—that I might perceive.”

Whilst at university Ibtihaj faced a challenge that many young Muslim students have to deal with. She was away from her family and she was becoming more and more lonely.  She writes “what I wanted was a Muslim community that I could pray with and also have fun with. I was looking for a safe space where I could be social but I didn’t want “being social” to involve anything that would compromise my faith. I knew how easy it was to make mistakes with drinking and drugs a normal part of campus life. And I knew if I kept hanging with my non-Muslim friends, those vices would always be around to tempt me.” Alhamudulilah, Islam plays a pivotal role in helping her deal with the challenges she faces. She writes “I found myself looking forward more and more to my daily prayers. Those precious moments were the only time in my day when I required myself to slow down, reflect, and remind myself of what was important.”

 

Now I don’t want to give away any spoilers regarding Ibtihaj’s fencing career! So, I’m not going to review that section, all I will say is it’s pretty exciting! Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading ““Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream,”, if you have a non-Muslim friend who’s interested in finding out about life as a Muslimah then gift this book to them. If you want some motivation to start making your goals a reality then this book will help kick start your plans. If you are finding it hard wearing hijab/jilbab then reading about Ibtihaj’s struggles will, inshallah, help you deal with your challenges.

When asked about the misconceptions that people have about her, she said.

“That someone is forcing me to wear this hijab,” she said. “That I’m oppressed. That I don’t have a voice. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very vocal, very verbal, and very comfortable expressing myself. I’ve always been like that. I remember being told that I shouldn’t fence as a kid because I was black, and it’s like why? I want to fence and this is what I want to do.”

In conclusion, “Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream,” is a thought-provoking and dare I say inspirational book. It gives a unique insight into the life of a hijab wearing Muslim athlete living in America. I’m a teacher and one of the main reasons I wrote this review is to create awareness vis-à-vis how successful Muslim women are overcoming racism and Islamophobia. There aren’t enough books written by Muslim women, oftentimes we are written about, misrepresented and demeaned. So, it’s refreshing to hear the uncensored voice of a Muslim woman who is proud of her faith and her achievements.

Farhat Amin

1 Comment

  1. Gret review! I wouldn’t normally read this type of book but it sounds very interesting!

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