Fencer says SXSW rep asked her to remove hijab for photo

Posted March 12th, 2016

While insisting it won’t ruin her first South by Southwest visit, 2016 U.S. Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad said she had a “pretty crappy experience” while checking into the festival on Saturday. 

Muhammad, a Muslim-American and a guest presenter at SXSW, was asked by a volunteer to remove her hijab, or head dress, before taking her ID photo. A hijab is a traditional covering for the hair and neck that is worn by Muslim women.

“I can’t make this stuff up,” Muhammad tweeted. 

Later, Muhammad touched on the situation when she spoke on the SXSW Interactive panel, "The New Church: Sports as Currency of American Life," with ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols and film director Marina Zenovich. 

“Someone asking me to remove my hijab is not out of the norm,” Muhammad told the audience. “I think that’s the most important thing to take away from my situation. Of course, that’s not going to define my experience here at South by Southwest. I just want people to know this is the norm for Muslim women here in this country.” 

Muhammad declined further comment at the conclusion of the discussion. Her publicist said Muhammad did not comply with the volunteers’ orders to remove the hijab, and eventually the matter was smoothed over. 

In a statement to the Chicago Tribune, festival organizers apologized and said the volunteer who had asked Muhammad to take off her hijab has been removed from further duties. 

"It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge," festival organizers said. "This was one volunteer who made an insensitive request and that person has been removed for the duration of the event. We are embarrassed by this and have apologized to Ibtihaj in person, and sincerely regret this incident.” 

Muhammad, a New Jersey native who attended Duke University, has secured a spot on the U.S. Olympic team that will head to Rio this summer. 

After completing her check-in at SXSW, she fired off the following series of tweets to her nearly 9,000 Twitter followers: