We love showcasing Muslim female athletes on Ummahsonic. Not only are they peak sportswoman with skills both awe-inspiring and envy-inducing, they are stereotype-bashing superheroes who put haters and naysayers well and truly in their sad, pathetic place.
But while we love showcasing female athletes, we really love talking over-excitedly about Muslim female boxers. Because while they also exhibit unmatched athletic prowess and equally powerful stereotype-smashing, they literally punch people in the face while doing it (note that we only condone such feats *inside* the boxing ring).
For this reason, we wanted to look at some of our favourite Muslim female pugilists, whose recent efforts in—and out—of the ring have everyone at Ummahsonic shadow boxing in appreciation. Which is a very embarrassing site to see.
Ramla Ali is a 29-year-old Somali British boxer who has won a number of amateur titles, boxed for England and become a Nike athlete, an incredible journey that seems almost implausible when you hear how she got to this point.
Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. In the midst of the country’s civil war in the early 90s, the family home’s garden was struck by a stray grenade, killing her brother. Vowing to never lose another child, Ali’s parents fled the country, a perilous journey that saw the family travel by boat to Kenya, where they stayed for a few years, and then onto London.
At about age 12, Ali began to get bullied by her classmates because of her weight. Thanks to a tough-love—but apparently constructive—bit of advice from her mum, Ali joined a gym.
“I remember my mum kept telling me: ‘You’ve got to start thinking about your health, no one’s going to want you,’” Ali recalled to the Guardian. At the leisure centre in East Ham, she discovered Boxercise. “I thought, ‘This is amazing!’” Soon after, she joined a boxing gym.
Ali loved boxing. Along with dropping weight, it provided another significant benefit: “More than anything I liked that in the boxing gym, everyone is equal….It’s like a respect.”
Unfortunately, Ali’s passion was at odds with her mother, who thought it immodest for women to play sports. In the ensuing years, Ali would drop in and out of boxing, struggling to reconcile it with her faith. But the urge was too strong. She got back to the gym, met a new coach, Richard Moore (who later became her husband) and has been competing ever since. Even her mother is on board. According to Refinery29, after Ali won a tournament in Denmark last year, she called her mum and “You could hear how proud she was.”
In 2017, Ali made the bold decision to represent Somalia in the sport, a move that required her to set up a boxing federation in the country. She now hopes to represent Somalia at Tokyo 2020. When Moore asked her why she wanted to represent her birth country over Britain, she said: “It’s about showing other Somali girls, other girls in Africa, that it’s all possible, if you set your mind to it.”
In 2017, Amaiya Zafar became the first amateur allowed by USA Boxing to compete in a hijab.
It was a historic moment, and while the fight ended with Zafar losing, the spectacle drew heavy media coverage.
Zafar, who was 17 and still in high school when the bout took place, set a precedent for the sport to become more accepting of religious values. At the end of last year, German boxer and hijabi Zeina Nassar (we’ll have more on her later) caught the world’s attention after she was featured in a high profile Nike ad. Like Zafar, she also fought a boxing governing body to be able to compete in a hijab.
Amaiya Zafar, who hails from Minnesota, is still boxing and she’s also coaching other girls. Even if she doesn’t achieve global dominance in the ring, her impact out of it will resonate for a very long time.
“To see her at 16 going to full-time college, driving herself around, mentoring young girls, and to walk into her ring while making hijab part of the uniform single-handedly just brought tears in my eyes,” her father told the Washington Post. “My girl is a trailblazer with a humble, strong heart who doesn’t just think of herself but how her resiliency will affect girls who will follow her.”
Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir is a 36-year-old boxer from Canberra, Australia. Now, we’re not going to sugarcoat this one for you guys: Elmir isn’t exactly a superstar. In fact, her boxing career is more persistent underdog than pay-per-view champion. She’s failed to qualify for the Olympics—twice—and she’s served a doping ban after taking a tablet to reduce swelling during a flight.
HOWEVER, her backstory shows why she’s never been anything if not determined. Bianca spent the first years of her life in Lebanon having been born in Saudi Arabia. Aged two, her parents divorced, and it was decided that she would live with her father’s parents. Her mother, who is of Lebanese heritage but was born and raised in Australia until marriage, was only able to see her on weekends. Shaken by the culture shock of Lebanon and refusing to accept the custody situation, Bianca’s mother did something drastic.
“One weekend she picked me up in a car, sped to Beirut airport, got on a plane and called her parents from Sydney,’ Bianca wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘She told them we were in Australia. She told them we were never coming back.”
Bianca’s mother forged a new life for them in Australia, where Bianca got into a range of sports. She also fell into the wrong crowd and regularly got into trouble. At the end of year 7, she was sent back to Lebanon to live with her maternal grandparents. The culture shock was huge, but she coped by rediscovering her faith.
Less than two years later, she was back in Australia, and back to her old ways. Yet this changed when she discovered kickboxing. The discipline it required allowed her to focus and find her own identity:
“The controlled environment of the ring, where I could learn highly sophisticated skills, attack and defend, gave me an elevated sense of confidence I had never experienced before. I kickboxed because there were no conflicting values in the ring,” she wrote in 2014.
Along with boxing, Bianca focuses her efforts on environmental issues and empowering women through sport. They’ve also made a documentary about her life. Check out the trailer above.
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Training for me has always been the best type of therapy, stress relief and a magical place where I rediscovered my identity. We often get mixed messages about what’s a healthy way of life. I always get grilled about the amount of time I spend in the gym and whether I should re-evaluate how to deal with stress and manage my anxiety. However I can’t tell you how important it is to do those things that bring you joy. So whether it’s the outdoors, journaling, the gym, cooking, eating delicious food, spending time with loved ones or watching a movie. Make time for the things that bring you joy…you will instantly feel uplifted and empowered to be the best version of you. #fromweaktowonderwoman #stress #joy
For the true boxing heads out there, we’re also including a coach on this list. We mean, it is boxing. You’ve all seen Creed. Coaches are vital.
But this one is a little different. Zahra Butt is the first hijab wearing amateur boxing coach to be qualified with the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA). “I think my hijab has always really empowered me….I’ve always trained with my hijab.”
The mother-of-three, from Nottingham, took up the sport after suffering from postnatal depression.
“I felt like I lost my own identity. I couldn’t really reconnect with myself,” she explained to the BBC last year. “My brother suggested boxing….after my first session it was like, ‘oh wow this is amazing. This feels so good.”
Zahra now coaches women who are often going through challenges similar to the one she faced before taking up the sport. As part of her training, she incorporates life-coaching into her classes to help her students regain their confidence.
To resort to a very predictable idiom, we’d love to have her in our corner.
If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the last year, you’ll recognise Zeina Nassar from Nike’s viral ad campaign fronted by Colin Kaepernick. The 21-year-old boxer from Berlin, Germany wears a hijab when she’s in the ring (she’s of Lebanese heritage). The fact she’s able to do so is down to her own resolve and determination.
With the help of her coach, a teenage Nasser successfully challenged a rule that outlawed hijabs in the boxing ring. “This was probably the most important triumph of my entire career,” she told Material Magazine. “Something that, even now, years later, keeps me passionate and lends me the strength I need to push through and overcome every obstacle.”
The rule change, while undeniably positive, often overshadows her achievements in the ring (she is the five time Berlin Boxing Champion and the 2018 German Champion, after all). Yet she is working to refocus the narrative:
“I’m proving them wrong by showing what I can do,” she explained to Refinery29. “The pressure is still there but I stay true to myself, and meanwhile I got pretty good at it.”
At age 34, Ruqsana Begum is a relative newcomer to the sport of boxing. But that’s only because she spent the previous decade as a champion kickboxer.
Born in Essex to Bangladeshi parents, Begum took up kickboxing as an 18-year-old student. She was initially scared to tell her parents about her new passion, but that started to change when her dad asked her why she was “walking like a boxer?”
Begum decided to bring her parents to watch her train. While they weren’t exactly thrilled, they accepted the path she was pursuing. That was 2006. Since then, she’s become the first Muslim British woman to be crowned Muay Thai Atomweight Kickboxing Champion, and she’s served as captain of the British Muay Thai team.
However, there were many challenges on her journey to kickboxing glory. “Once I finished university I had an arranged marriage which failed miserably,” she recently told the BBC. “That led me to a low patch in my life and at that point I felt like I lost my identity.”
Begum was also diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) in 2010, a chronic fatigue illness that severely limits her training.
Despite these setbacks, Begum still reached elite status in her sport. Even so, her competitive spirit was not satisfied. Last year, Begum announced she was making the switch to professional boxing with the backing of former heavyweight champion David Haye’s Hayemaker Promotions. Her first fight, in March 2018, was ruled a draw.
Given her past success, we’re backing her to win the next one.