Woman’s wrestling champ barred from competing in World Team qualifier

Published by Rachel Arceo on

First-year, women’s wrestling champ, Zainab Ibrahim, spends her time either practicing, studying, or praying.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Zainab Ibrahim is an up-and-coming woman’s wrestling athlete, high-achieving transfer student and devout Muslim.  She has managed to juggle all three well, until recently when she was shut out from competing in World Trials, hosted by USA Wrestling, because of modesty alterations to her uniform in alignment with her Muslim faith.

Wearing a simple black hijab and long sleeves, Ibrahim looks unique on a campus of predominantly Caucasian students, but that had never presented a problem at Umpqua Community College. 

Ibrahim was born in Kenya but immigrated to Idaho at three months old where her family lived for much of her childhood until eventually they moved to Portland, Oregon.

At 18 years old, Ibrahim has been wrestling since she was in junior high, donning variations of modesty uniforms usually including her hijab (the head covering worn in public by some Muslim women) and Under Armour compression sleeves and leggings. This has worked for every competition she has been in until recently, when she attempted to compete for a qualifying spot on the world team through USA Wrestling and United World Wrestling.

Ibrahim, a first-year transfer student, has been successful in her college wrestling career with UCC and the National Junior College Athletic Association, the NJCAA; she placed second in her weight class at Nationals this March. 

Once the college wrestling season was over, she trained and planned to compete in a singlet with her arm and leg compression coverings for the World Team qualifying competition. But days before the event, she was given an ultimatum.

“They (USA Wrestling) told me I could wear my hijab, but I would have to show my arms and legs, which makes no sense to me, as I wear the hijab for modesty reasons so why would I bare my skin?” Ibrahim says.

“So I had to stay behind and watch my teammates compete,” Ibrahim says.

World Team Trials problem explained

Ibrahim explained that USA Wrestling didn’t have a problem with her wearing her coverings, but the decision was out of their control because the tournament is connected to United World Wrestling.

United World Wrestling has the no modification rule.

UCC women’s wrestling coach, Matt Barrett, explained, “When you are competing for a world team spot, the world team competes, even though it’s a USA team in the UWW, which is a different governing body than USA wrestling.

“You can qualify for the (USA) team, but you can’t compete in that league because of the uniform (modification rule). What it does is that it messes up the rankings for that weight class, and that’s what happened last year with McBryde (a Muslim-American); she won but she couldn’t represent the country because she couldn’t wear the uniform and UWW wouldn’t change the rules.

“So, it’s not a USA wrestling thing,” Barrett says. “It’s a UWW thing because it’s a qualifying spot for World Team and Pan Am teams that wrestle under UWW.”

In the recent past, USA Wrestling did allow modifications in the qualifier competitions. Latifa McBryde, a Muslim wrestler from Buffalo, New York, wrestled in a two-piece pants and shirt combo with compression sleeves and qualified to represent the US at the Pan-American Wrestling Championships in Mexico in 2022.  She too was given an ultimatum, wear the singlet in accordance to UWW guidelines or forfeit her spot.  She did not compete.

“Until UWW changes the rules, there is not much USA Wrestling can do,” Barrett says.

Since then, thousands have signed an online petition to have UWW change the no modification rule. 

Her devotion to her faith

“I follow some Olympians on social media, and I know I look up to them.  I would love to be that for others, like be the example for other hijabies, give them a reason to keep going,” Ibrahim says.

“We call ourselves hijabies; if you want to be formal, it’s Muslim women,” Ibrahim explains with a smile and a shrug.  “There are not a lot of Muslim women in this sport. When we see another hijabie at a tournament, we always run up and say, ‘Hi, let’s be friends’; we exchange info and cheer each other on.

“So when you tell us we can’t wear our leggings and stuff, it’s very disheartening. Most of us want to take it to the next level, but we are not willing to put our faith on the line to do it,” Ibrahim says. “It pushes us away from the sport.  Our community is small as it is, and it is just going to get smaller.  It feels like what’s’ the point of college wrestling if you can’t take it past the point of college wrestling and go to the next level.”

Future political science major, Zainab Ibrahim, tries to find success in her sport while staying true to her own beliefs and faith.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

While Ibrahim was raised a Muslim, she clarifies the practices of her faith are now her choice.

“In high school I started wanting to learn more about my religion and began wearing my hijab more.  This is the first year I have not taken off my hijab in public the whole year.  Now that I have come to UCC, I’m away from my family, and there is not much to do here, so I started to take a deep dive into my faith.” 

Ibrahim prays regularly, sometimes in the gym, sometimes in the student center, sometimes in the office closet of her best friend, Chloe Elliot, an office assistant.

“I feel when you are praying, you are literally talking to God,” Ibrahim says. “God gave you life,  so why wouldn’t you want to thank him.? Why wouldn’t I want to thank him for all my blessings?” Ibrahim says.

A passion for wrestling pays for school

At 12 years old, Ibrahim wanted to be the next John Cena. Watching WWE together was a part of family bonding in the Ibrahim household. Cena was her inspiration to learn wrestling; little did she know at the time it would eventually pay for her college.

In junior high when she first began, she had to convince her parents to let her participate.  Her mother was hesitant because she feared the possible pushback to Muslim women in any sport.  Her father also had those fears and wasn’t sure about paying fees for participation in sporting activities.

“I told her ‘Mom, you have to sign me up, I am gonna be the next John Cena. You can’t see it, but I can see it; I have the vision,” she recalls with a broad smile and laughter in her eyes. “My argument to my parents was if I don’t do it who else is gonna step up? I can take the lead and set the example. 

“Now look, I’m an all-American, and a national runner-up,” Ibrahim smiles.

Ibrahim had no idea how far wrestling would take her until her senior year when she was looking for possible colleges. Then Ibrahim got a call from her former wrestling coach and current director of wrestling at UCC, Anthony Weerheim.

Weerheim invited her to wrestle for him once again, but this time as a Riverhawk; she was in.

Balancing school, aspirations and faith

Ibrahim is a busy student-athlete who hopes to major in political science.  She maintains a 3.6 gpa, works about 20 hours of work study a week with UCC Admissions, manages to pray five times a day all while continually training for wrestling. This can be a challenge.

“The hardest aspect of being a good student and a good athlete is sometimes feeling like you never get a break,” Ibrahim says. “If I’m not practicing, I’m studying and doing homework; even at tournaments I find myself constantly worried about my assignments, and when I’m in class I worry that maybe I’m not doing enough to better myself at wrestling.

“I try my best, but I’m my own enemy,” Ibrahim says. “It gets really tiring, but I know it’s gonna be worth it.”

Ibrahim admits she initially wanted to wrestle in a USA Wrestling competition more for the exposure than making the team; now, she does have a dream of doing so. “I would love to make the Olympic Team and represent the USA, my country,” Ibrahim says with a broad smile. “I want to be the first ‘hijabie’ to wrestle for team USA.”

As it stands

The ruling against the modesty sleeves and leggings is difficult for Ibrahim to understand. “I usually compete in shorts and shirt, with compression sleeves, but mid-season my coach warned me that if I wanted to compete at world team trials, ‘You can’t wear your shirt and stuff, you have to wear a singlet,’” Ibrahim says.

Ibrahim and her coach assumed she could still wear her compression sleeves and leggings like she had worn previously in a USA Wrestling event in Fargo, North Dakota.

“This (no uniform modification rule) happened last year, and I feel like they weren’t prepared,” Ibrahim says. “I know before, after Latifa, USA Wrestling said they were going to investigate if compression sleeves and modification gave us advantage, but they never released any findings,” Ibrahim says.

Zainab Ibrahim admits she does not enjoy public speaking, but she laughed regularly as she shared her story with Rachel Arceo.
Mason Ramirez / The Mainstream

Ibrahim has worn the singlet before so she was willing to wear it as long as she could also wear the compression coverings. “Honestly, the modifications put me at a disadvantage. They give the other players something to grip, and I am way more likely to overheat, but it’s worth it to me to be in alignment with my faith,” Ibrahim says. “But now you’re telling me to take off my leggings and shirt.  That is where I stop. I’m not crossing that line.” 

“Religious freedom is one of the things here; it’s in our constitution,” Ibrahim says. “I felt that the decision to not let me compete went away from that.”

When Ibrahim and her mother watched the tournament from their home in Portland, her mother said, “You would have done great, I am very proud of you.  God willing you will not face this discrimination next year,” Ibrahim says.

Ibrahim continues to practice, stay conditioned and stay busy with school work, but she really hopes things will change in the future.  “I don’t want to have to decide between my faith and my love of wrestling,” Ibrahim says.

United World Wrestling has not yet responded to request for comment regarding the modification rule.

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