Today we’re talking with a pretty fierce and courageous young woman. At the age of sixteen boxer Amaiya Zafar is literally and figuratively fighting her way into the boxing ring. In honoring her Muslim faith, Amaiya has chosen to train and compete while wearing a hijab and covering her arms and legs. While this may seem harmless to some, the International Boxing Federation (AIBA) and USA Boxing claim that her modest dress is somehow a threat to her safety. In fact, last month at the Sugar Bert Tournament in Florida, Amaiya was disqualified* because she refused to part with her clothing in favor of competing. Her journey into boxing and commitment to doing it on her own terms offers a glimpse at what it truly means to fight for what you believe in.
How did you get into boxing?
My dad and I were at a fencing tournament watching my friend compete. My dad suggested that I try fencing. He thought it’d be good because it’s an individual sport has team training. I told him, “You’re funny. I will never fence. I’d rather get punched in the face than have someone poke a stick at me.” He looked at me and said, “Ok, well then box.” So I started boxing. I started in the garage and the moment I walked into a real boxing gym I knew instantly that this is my thing.
You box in a hijab and with your arms and legs covered in accordance with your Islamic beliefs. Why?
It’s important to me that I cover myself. It’s my way of showing respect for myself. Boxing is my passion and I am just as passionate about boxing as I am about my religion. I want to be able to compete with my hijab because I don’t believe that I should have to compromise one for the other. They should be able to go hand-in-hand. We have freedom of religion in this country, so I never imagined that wearing my hijab, practicing my religion, would prevent me from being able to compete. So I didn’t start boxing with a mission to become the first female to box in a hijab because I didn’t think it would be a problem.
Even though I didn’t start boxing with a goal to start a movement, I do think that young girls can look up to me as proof that they can be strong. They can be strong and practice their religion at the same time. I value the opportunity to be a role model and I carry that with respect.
Well the AIBA has said that the reason for disallowing hijabs and coverings relates to the safety of athletes. The coverings can supposedly prevent referees from noticing and assessing injuries. Do you believe that?
Neither the AIBA nor USA Boxing has personally given me that explanation. They sort of point the finger at one another as the source of responsibility. The federations have given that explanation to media outlets, but have never actually told me my hijab and coverings are a safety hazard. So to me, that’s proof that the supposed safety issue isn’t the real reason. If you feel so strongly about a position, how can you not have a conversation about it with the person it affects?
Have you officially tried to challenge the rule?
Originally, I reached out and had some communications with USA Boxing. I was told that it shouldn’t be a problem to compete. I was asked to send in pictures of what I intended to compete in. After I sent the pictures I didn’t really hear anything back. Our calls and emails went unanswered until eventually I got a response saying that what I wanted to wear wouldn’t work. I got no real explanation about why it wouldn’t work and no statement that if I tried to compete that I would be disqualified. About year ago we applied for a waiver and we received no response from that. Then when we went to the tournament in Florida, I was disqualified.
Up until the fight in Florida I had tried to compete in local fights in Minnesota. There aren’t a lot of girls who fight, so we would put together fights and then USA Boxing would cancel them. I think it’s because they really didn’t want to confront the issue. But since being officially disqualified in Florida we’ve been working on filing an official grievance.
What do you think the rule should be?
I think each individual should be able to choose what they’re comfortable fighting in. My reason for wearing my clothes is for religious purposes, but if someone else doesn’t want to wear just a tank top (and it has nothing to do with religion), they should be able to do that too.
When the rule to wear a tank top was first put in place it was to protect people from being cut up by the ropes. So the rule never had anything to do with being able to spot injury. More covering added more protection for the athlete. I’m not in any danger because I want to represent my faith and I’m more covered up than other athletes.
It sounds like your practice of covering yourself actually provides more protection, not that it creates a safety concern. Has it been difficult to find clothing that works for you?
When I first started it was really hard to find clothes to train in; things that worked for me, that I felt good in, that didn’t feel too hot. Eventually I did find what works for me. I wear Under Armour leggings and shorts and a long sleeved shirt. So it’s not any different than what the guys wear. I wear a Capsters hijab, a really breathable sports hijab. I don’t feel like any of it slows me down in any way. I don’t think I’m at a competitive disadvantage or have an advantage from what I wear.
You’ve chosen an unpopular sport for girls and you’ve chosen to do it in an unpopular way. That seems rather lonely. How does it feel to be in this position?
I don’t feel like I stand alone. I have my team, my coaches and my family to support me. There have been trying times like when I go to a different gym and guys try to test me. I’m always able to handle it whooping up on them and then leave me alone. So I generally don’t feel any different than others. I’m just a boxer.
What do you want people to know about you and your faith?
I want people to know that I’m a fighter. The AIBA and USA Boxing can say no to competition, but they can’t take that from me. And I want people to know that Islam is a religion of peace. I’m not oppressed because I cover myself. I choose to cover myself. My parents don’t force me in any way, shape or form. It’s completely my decision. Wearing my hijab and covering myself demands respect. I demand respect from my peers and people around me. It’s a statement about who I am and what I stand for.
There’s no question that you exude strength and courage, but who’s your favorite GladiatHer®?
Claressa Shields. I love her. She’s so strong, determined and is breaking barriers. She’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist. What more can you be. I would love to compete in the Olympics one day.
In a society when young girls and women are constantly pressured to conform to Western ideals, it’s a truly beautiful thing to watch Amaiya Zafar stand strong for what she believes in. Her faith in her god and herself is undeniable and her journey is nothing short of inspiring. I have no doubt that in 2017, her perseverance will pay off and we’ll see her in the ring; rocking her hijab, her leggings and her long-sleeved shirt. Thank you, Amaiya, for fighting. Keep up with her on Instagram. And be sure to share her story of strength and determination by clicking the links below.
*Although Amaiya was disqualified, her scheduled competitor, Aliyah Charbonier, shared the title belt with her as she disagreed with the grounds for disqualification.