Hijabi Muay Thai Fighter Redefining The Norm And Making History
My leap into the world of Martial Arts started when, as a young first year university student, I wanted to find passion in a new sport and discovered this Muay Thai gym in the back streets of Burnt Oak Broadway (Minotaur Gym). That moment my whole life changed.
I have competed at a respectable level since I was 8 years old in sports, from swimming, speed skating, to netball and basketball. However, although I knew I would love martial arts, I never had the courage to try it. It appealed to me, I loved the idea of learning how to use your body to defend yourself and the discipline and history behind this mystical martial art. I must say I feel in those days I didn’t know of anyone who was doing boxing or a martial arts other than some form of karate as a child. It seemed quite uncommon and unique.
My first workout at Minotaurs had me more or less on the floor: it was exhausting, exhilarating and such a shock to my system. From that point I was addicted and I couldn’t believe after 21 years of my life heavily involved in sport I found something that was so challenging.
The gym saw potential in me and I had a deep desire to fight. I then went on to having a few amateur inter-club competitions for the club. These are non-decision amateur bout in a controlled setting where you can practise your skills on an actual opponent of the same weight and experience as you (typically 3x 1minute rounds). My first ever trainer (Sal) was a very experienced fighter from the gym. He worked with the head coach at the gym to get me fighting fit and ready. An amazing partnership and friendship evolved.
Shortly after learning the ropes I went to Thailand for 3 weeks to do a training camp at Lamai Muay Thai Camp under the watchful eye of Ralph Beale and his amazing team. I spent 3 weeks training twice a day; 6am-8am and 5pm-7pm with Sunday as a rest. Every session involved 4-6km run, it was intense! Little did I know I would end up fighting in a big thai stadium. We spent the night of our fight on the back of a truck with other fighters holding the flags of the countries we represented. Sal and I were so proud to hold the England flag up as we drove around the streets of Chaweng in Koh Samui. And to top if off, I won my first ever fight by second round knock out!
I came back from Thailand with a buzz and carried on competing in the UK. I was obsessed with the training and addicted to the feeling after: empowered, fierce and so strong. All the while I decided to observe my faith and cover my hair with a Hijab. This was a big decision for me and I wondered if it would affect me in the sport. Could I still compete? What could I wear? There weren’t any other fighters dressed this way! At the time I felt a little isolated, I know there was doubt from others about my decision. Saying that, I had so much love and support from my close friends and family who have been in my corner since day 1 helping me chase my dreams.
Fast forward 5 years, I married to my soulmate (Sal) and we had a baby girl. I had new motivation in my life and a child I wanted to inspire. My husband was so supportive in getting me back to training and making sure I had time to train in between childcare and my job, I'm still adamant he just wanted to take every chance he could to hit me with the pads. On a serious not it is so important for any woman who wants to get back into shape; you need that partnership, support and understanding at home. I felt so blessed that my first ever trainer was my other half. The person who knew me best and had taught me so much. The fact that he has a professional fight career of over 60 fights, 3 world title belts meant that I was in the hands of someone who had done it at the top level and knows what it takes.
I trained for months on end, starting by home workouts building up fitness to hitting pads and running to get myself back to full fitness. After lots of conversations with myself (and hubs, of course), I decided nothing would stop me from competing again. If no other woman was competing in Muay Thai from the UK, I would be the first. I wanted to create a path for many to follow. I travelled to Thailand and became the first veiled woman to compete in Muay Thai in a professional Thai stadium.
It was surreal driving around seeing my fight poster on every other street corner. I kept thinking, “Right this is actually happening”. I didn’t give much thought to the fight itself in terms of game plan; I just said I’d trust my coach and fight hard whoever was in front of me.
On the night, my fight was the first one on the card so I definitely felt the pressure to put on a good show. I saw my opponent and I could tell she would put me to the test. I said to my husband, “She’s good isn’t she?” He just said, “Nez you’re gonna walk through her, she can’t handle pressure so don’t take any steps back”. Before I knew it I was in the ring by myself under the bright lights. I said to myself, “Right, you’re in here now there’s no way out. You need to prove to yourself you can do this”.
The minute the first bell rang I didn’t take a step back and I threw everything I had and then some more at her. The funny thing is I knew what her style was like; very calculated, tactical and on the back foot scoring points. I knew I couldn’t play the same game as her, my Thai trainers told me she was a good kicker and I needed to keep pressuring her, in other words… non stop action.
Round 1 went so quickly and I remember thinking I’m landing solid punches with everything I got and she’ s still standing. I knew I was in for a long ride; she was tough!
Round 2 I remember catching so many of her body kicks and tripping her. Every time her body hit the canvas I felt more and more in control of this fight and I could hear all my friends and the thai's screaming in thai I didn't understand a word but from their facial expressions I could tell they were impressed and wanted to see more.
Round 3 my legs were heavy and I came out of the corner breathing hard. I was the fittest and sharpest I’d been (post baby) but I guess the adrenaline was starting to take its toll. In the final break when I went to my corner before round 4 my trainers told me “this is the last round so for the first minute we want you go as hard as you can. I remember thinking “I’m so tired when is this over”. Which is not surprising because my work rate was so high throughout that fight and lets face it was my first time back in the ring after such a long break. I dug so deep for the win in the final round it was over in a flash.
I remember the moment the referee pulled my hand up in the air. I remember jumping up and hitting my gloves on my head thinking I’d done it, after all the hard work and hurdles I faced I've come out on top. Then I felt a moment of pride for who I was representing: every Muslim women who doubted herself, every mum who doubted they could get fit again and every woman who was told or told themselves they weren’t good enough. At one point in my life people doubted me because of the choices I made but the burning desire to prove myself and everyone wrong was too strong.I won’t be defeated and I won’t be deterred just because I don’t “fit the mould”. I guess it helps that I’m so stubborn... ha!
I believe that Muay Thai has changed my life. It has empowered me with so much mental strength, opened doors I never thought were possible, allowed me to meet some life long friends and some I can now call family. I believe this “strength” is accepting who you are and if that’s different to the norm, you don’t let it limit you in life. Being strong is accepting we are all different shapes, sizes and appearances with all kinds of beliefs but this doesn’t have to limit us. I wanted to show the world that women like me are athletes, we are mothers and we can be and are just as strong as everyone else.
Often as women we give ourselves such a hard time. Why? I honestly don’t know because quite frankly we are pretty badass! I love to see the look on people’s faces when they see a veiled Muslim punch or kick the pads - To some, the two don’t appear to go together. Considering the political climate I think rather than focusing on the negative we need more of a platform to share the positive stories of muslim women trying to achieve great things and break down some of those stereotypes. Also Martial arts and boxing seem to have a masculine association and in my experience people don’t believe it’s a “feminine sport”. That statement in itself makes me feels uncomfortable. Why does being a woman have to be associated with the softer practices like yoga. Why can’t we be powerful women who punch, kick, knee and elbow? More importantly why don’t we get to decide what makes us feel like a strong empowered woman whatever sport we chose to do.
I want to leave you with a thought and I want you to know two things: different is beautiful, so learn to embrace what makes you stand out. And don’t ever lose that fire in your heart that is making you want to achieve your goals. However small or big your ambitions are, If you can imagine it and feel yourself achieving it, you can make it happen. As long as you have the fire burning inside you, anything you put your heart into is possible! I have so many goals within this sport and I can’t wait to take you all on the journey with me.
He also won that night- what a legend!