Jab. Feet front. Jab-jab, twist, right hook. Head, body-shot, duck. Attack.

Eryn watched the woman in the baggy sports suit with intense curiosity – at first looking a little perplexed at the complex fighting combinations, and then as her excitement grew, mimicked dancing from foot to foot, ducking her head, and rolling her arms into little baby jabs. This impromptu shadowboxing session was a treat, as neither of us had ever seen a fighter in action.

*Mombasa showed off her skills. She was fast, light on her feet and threw out punches in quick, rapid-fire succession.

I put up my hands for target practice and was literally blown away by the strength coming from her small frame. Despite appearances, as an amateur boxer training for the 112-pound flyweight division, this was definitely not a person to mess with. Mombasa explained that she built up her strength by training with 14oz gloves and sparring with men twice her size.

That’s when I asked if she ever felt conflicted fighting in hijab.

Once again, Muslim women, hijabs and sports have been making headlines. It started earlier this month with FIFA disqualifying the Iranian Women’s national soccer team from an important Olympic qualifying match – citing that their hijabs were a safety concern that did not conform to uniform rules. Then the news broke that weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah of Atlanta may be banned from tournaments because she wishes to compete while wearing hijab, long sleeves and pants. And just this week in Quebec, a muhajabah referee was fired for wearing her hijab on the field – with the Quebec Soccer Federation saying that FIFA bans the wearing of hijab and other religious symbols on pitch.

Preventing women from participating in sports is nothing new. But preventing women on the basis of what they wear is gaining more attention as more North American Muslim athletes try to find ways to pursue both their sport and their faith.

Not every sports association bans the hijab. Recently, I gushed over discovering the Auburn Tigers, a team created by the Australian Football League to entice Muslim women’s interest in rugby. The team has a female coach and they have an emergency plan in place if someone looses a hijab during a tackle. Next year, female boxing will premier at the 2012 London Olympics, and it’s absolutely brilliant that the International Boxing Association has ruled in favour of women observing religious dress requirements – provided their faces are uncovered for scoring purposes. And despite FIFA’s rules, not every soccer league makes an issue out of a 12 year old’s hijab.

Sport hijab bans based on safety  don’t make any sense to me. I swim, run, hike, dance and wrestle the Hubby with my hijab on and even at it’s most elaborate styling, it’s never a safety hazard. Athletes have compromised on the type of head coverings worn during competition, leading to the emergence of the sport hijab – a fitted cotton hood and neck cover with an easy velcro neck release. Regardless, sports leagues, federations and associations continue to cite safety concerns as the logistics behind barring Muslim women and youth from competition.

Sport hijab bans based on enforcing secularism also upsets me because athletes do display personal and religious symbols and rituals – whether it’s kissing a cross, sporting a funky, superstitious hairstyle, pointing to the sky after a goal, or thanking God on live television for carrying the team to the Superbowl. Do I really need to mention all of the male Muslim athletes, cricketers and footballers who wear religiously mandated beards?

So, I can’t help but think that when organisations take the steps to deny female Muslim athletes access to their sport based on what they wear, it’s motivated out of misunderstanding and prejudice. Especially when they claim to hold true to the promise that no athlete is discriminated against based on religion.

I wanted to hear from a Muslim athlete regarding the bans and was privileged to spend an afternoon with an amazing woman. Mombasa is a 20-something PhD candidate living in Eastern Ontario. She’s currently training for her first amateur boxing match in October. The following interview is based on our conversations while we chatted at a local Toronto park:

  • Tell me about your hijab.

“Hijab for me is definitely a requirement of my faith. When I put it on at the age of 18, it was a tool for me to control my ego. Later, I felt that my hijab develop from being an instrument of self-control to becoming a part of me and a way to feel to closer to God.

The best blessing is to be able to pray wherever I want. With my hijab on, I’m always in a state of worship. You can pray in your heart of course, but with the hijab you can perform the physical part of prayer anywhere. I truly love the hijab and it doesn’t inhibit me from doing anything.”

  • How did you get into boxing?

“Honestly, it’s really simple. I always wanted to do it. Boxers have strength and empowerment. Boxing is about skill, technique, fitness and strategy. One day my older brother bought me a month’s worth of lessons at a local club. And it snowballed from there.”

  • So obviously your family is supportive. What kinds of reactions have you received from the larger Muslim community?

“Islamically people will criticise boxing. Hitting the face, hitting people is discouraged. People also don’t think that wearing the hijab in a male-dominated sport is appropriate. I’m a ‘good Muslim girl’ – I shouldn’t be aggressive or working with males.

There’s an Islamic poem I think of often when I step into the ring:

To the left
To the right
Everywhere in sight
Nusaybah bint k’ab
At the head of the fight

Nusaybah was an early Companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him). She was an amazing woman who joined him in many battles – and it is said, that wherever he turned, he could see her there at the ready to defend him. This tells me that she must have been fit, sound in her training, skilled in weaponry, fought against and alongside of men and had an unbridled passion to do so.

Of course I’m aware of opposition to women boxing, but at this stage of my journey, for me the benefits of boxing outweigh whatever doubts others have. Boxing is spiritual. It’s not about killing or destroying your opponent. It’s a holistic approach to focus your mind and respect your body. I actually find a lot of similarities between the discipline required for boxing and the discipline needed to follow Islam.”

  • Do you ever feel conflicted about boxing and wearing hijab?

“When I’m boxing, the hijab makes me train harder. I know I can proudly wear the hijab while doing things I feel are in harmony with my faith. Some might find that strange, but as a representative of Islam, I have to be the best. Whether that’s the best Muslim or the best boxer.

Women boxers are few and far between so we normally have to train with male coaches and spar with male opponents. At first I felt strange when my coach touched my gloves or turned my waist – I worried about the permissibility of it. But this kind of touching is not skin to skin. I have my gear on and the coach is doing his job. He’s trying to make me become a good boxer. If you want to learn, this is how you have to do it.

My coach has been very clear with me. He’s said that he would not have invested in me if he didn’t think I could succeed. He told me once after someone said I should be wearing shorts: ‘you WILL fight and you WILL wear your hijab.’”

  • What are your thoughts on banning women athletes because of wearing hijab?

“It truly angers me. I feel it’s an obstacle that federations and associations are imposing without any legitimate basis.

It’s also an attack based on misperceptions of Islam. When Islam is criticised for oppressing women and for not allowing women to do and wear certain things – then it makes no sense when sports associations do the same!

If safety reasons are cited, then explain to me what the limits are. There are no limits. Hijab has been modified and engineered to avoid any perceived dangers to the person wearing it. If it’s a uniform requirement to make sure that the athlete isn’t hiding something, then pat her down before the match. When a boxer goes in a fight, the gloves are inspected. That’s why there are regulations in the first place!

As for personal and spiritual expressions – training and conditioning is a universal language. How does a personal symbol affect your ability as a sportsman?

There are many hijabi boxers in the Middle East, Afghanistan, India – it’s less frequent in North America and this is probably why it’s being made into a big deal. I’m honoured that for many people, I’m their first exposure to a Muslim, and especially, a Muslim woman athlete.”

  • Why is boxing so important to you?

“The first time I went boxing, I put in so much passion into the session. I gave it every single ounce of energy in my heart. I harbor a lot of anger inside because of a certain experience I had as a youth, and when I was boxing I was finally able to release the emotions I had pent up for so long.

I didn’t even know these emotions were there until I put on the gloves and started hitting the bag. When I released the anger, it was emotionally painful, but physically liberating. But the next time I sparred with someone, I decided to harness that anger and take it out on my opponent. It totally backfired. I lost focus and lost horribly.

That’s when I realised that boxing wasn’t about releasing my pain from that experience – but that I can use it as an opportunity to liberate myself from these emotions. To start a spiritual and physical journey that will end in my internal strength being manifested by my external strength.

And one day when I win my first match, whatever experiences I had before, I will have overcome them. All with the help from Allah.”

*Mombasa is her boxing name.

Image Credit: Asif Rehman Photography