‘Some people in the Muslim community say I bring shame and I embarrass them, but I don’t care what they say – it’s their problem, not mine’As told to Aisha Zia for the FT Weekend Magazine
AUGUST 2 2013
There’s a picture of when I was a baby and I’ve got my hands up. My dad said, “She’s going to be a boxer.” I’ve always been sporty; my brother and me would wrestle every morning. I am girly, though – I normally have my nails painted but I took it off for Ramadan.
No one really expects an Asian Muslim girl to walk out and get into the ring. My first fight was in Leeds; I was 15. It was mainly Asian and black people; it was packed out. I walked in and everyone was like, is that an Asian girl? I was trying to get into the ring and people were still saying, that’s an Asian girl! They were checking their programmes. When I got into the ring all I could see was big people looking scary. Then afterwards, the same people came up to me, they’re hugging me, all these big random muscly men with tattoos and gold teeth, and I’m thinking, who the hell are you lot?
My best moment so far was when I won the national championships in 2009 – it was my second fight. I was only 16. Every time you fight you think, that girl’s bigger than me, she’s going to knock me out, but then you get into the zone. A lot of people think you’re fighting your enemies but you’re not – you get into the ring and there’s no swearing, not like professional fights where they get their heads together and say, I’m going to do this and that. It’s nothing like that in amateur boxing; you don’t know who you’re boxing and afterwards you hug and say “well done”. Most of the girls I’ve fought I’m friends with on Facebook. I’ve never boxed anyone I hate.
Before boxing I was really shy and I wouldn’t have said a word. I was bullied a lot when I lived in Seven Kings in London because my mum’s Portuguese and my dad’s Pakistani. It carried on when we moved to Bradford, but boxing has really built up my confidence; it’s made me who I am today.
I was an angry child but I’m not as angry now because I take all my aggression out in training. It calms me down. I’ve been through a lot – my parents separated, then a few years later my brother had a really bad car accident. I stopped boxing altogether. The doctor gave my brother a 5 per cent chance of surviving. He’s disabled now, but he’s the one who got me back in the ring. He inspired me because he’s a fighter. He nearly died, but he’s the happiest person I know. He’s been to every single one of my fights. I fight for him, and for my mum.
I like to break down barriers; I want girls to see me, and I want to give them confidence. My role models are my mum, Naz (my coach) and Laila Ali, she’s Muhammad Ali’s daughter. She’s a professional boxer, a world champion, and her dad didn’t want her to box; Muhammad Ali said, “No, it’s not a woman’s sport.” But she still went for it. And she did it. She became world champion. If she can do it, why can’t I?
Some people in the Muslim community say I bring shame and I embarrass them, but I don’t care what they say – it’s their problem, not mine. It annoys me because they should support me because I’m the first, and they should support other girls. I wear shorts and T-shirt in the boxing ring, not because I think I look attractive but because it’s the rules. I love my boxing too much to give it up.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Ambreen was first interviewed by Aisha in 2013 as part of the No Guts, No Heart, No Glory research. The play is based on testimonies with real female boxers and Muslim women and written by Aisha.