Amaiya Zafar is a young girl in Minnesota who, like many her age, found a sport she loves and desperately wants to practice it, to learn more about herself and to test just how good she can become.
But there are significant barriers standing in Zafar’s way. For one, the sport she fell in love with is amateur boxing. More significantly, she is a 15-year-old Muslim girl who is as devout as she is dedicated and she wants to wear a hijab, a headcovering for Muslim women, under her boxing headgear and uniform. While it’s nearly impossible for her to find opponents in her size and age groups, the bigger roadblock is that international rules that govern the sport do not allow her to wear a hijab in competition. Maybe, the 10th grader thinks, boxing rules should evolve with the times.
“I think the rules are old school,” Zafar, who lives in Oakdale, Minn., told The Washington Post. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting them changed.”
Her mother, Sarah O’Keefe-Zafar, believes the rule is now having unintended consequences. “I don’t think they ever intended to exclude anybody from the sport,” she told The Post.
Against the odds for most young girls, Zafar fell hard for boxing two years ago when she saw the ring at a Minneapolis-area gym. Her father, Mohammad, suggested that she take up fencing, but that wasn’t for Amaiya. “I’ll box before I’ll fence,” she told him. And that was that. He helped her understand the finer points of the sport by showing her videos and teaching her about amateur boxing. Finally, she stepped into a gym and then the ring.
“Everyone was like, ‘That’s Amaiya. She’s the small one,’ ” she said.
Her parents, meanwhile, went from supportive to enthusiastic. “When she first trained, I came into this as a mom and a nurse,” O’Keefe-Zafar said, “but she was dedicated and trained for over a year without sparring. And I watched her go from a timid little girl to a confident young person.”
Finally, she had to prove herself in the ring against an opponent.
“All the boys around the ring kept telling him, ‘She’s just a girl. Punch her pretty little face off. You can’t let a girl beat you,’ ” Amaiya Zafar said. After she scored the last jab, she had the last word with the boy and his friends: “I might be a girl, but you hit like a girl.”
Eventually, she found acceptance in the ring. “Now they’re my team,” she said, adding that they work out together and that “it’s fun to spar.”
And when Zafar, one of three children in her family, takes a hit? “I look at it as something I did wrong defensively,” she said. “I try to learn from it and focus a lot on defense.”
Zafar is a boxing purist; she won’t try to become the next Ronda Rousey. “I’m not a wrestler, I’m not a kickboxer. Amateur boxing is not like pro boxing,” she said.
Rules about a hijab aren’t the only obstacle in Zafar’s way, though. She now stands 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighs 106 pounds; she’s always, she says, “the small one” at the gym. There aren’t a ton of possible opponents for women to begin with, let alone those in her height and weight class. In addition, opponents must be within two years of one another. And there’s the hijab. Removing it isn’t an option for a girl to whom faith matters deeply.
International boxing rules stipulate that she cover neither her arms nor her legs below the knees and Zafar would like to wear a long-sleeved Under Armour shirt and leggings beneath her tank top and shorts. USA Boxing has requested a provisional ruling from AIBA, the international boxing organization to which USA boxing defers on rules. Neither USA Boxing nor AIBA responded to a number of requests for comment from The Post. Martino cited safety as a consideration for the rules.
“If you’re covering up arms, if you’re covering up legs, could there be preexisting injury?” Michael Martino, the organization’s interim executive director, told MPR News’ Laura Yuen in September. “And then if someone got hurt during the event, the referee wouldn’t be able to see it.”
While USA Boxing awaits some sort of ruling from AIBA’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, Martino said there was only so much officials could do.
“We have 30,000 amateur boxers in the United States,” Martino said. “So if you make allowances for one religious group, what if another comes in and says we have a different type of uniform we have to wear? You have to draw a line some place.”
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of Minnesota’s Council on American-Islamic Relations, told WDAZ.com that USA Boxing’s appeal was the right move. “You know, I think we are looking for an opportunity for this young girl to get a chance to do what all young teenagers [do], especially girls who want to play in this unique sport boxing and the only difference is that she’s a Muslim,” Hussein said.
Zafar isn’t the first athlete to fight to wear a hijab during sports. In the spring of 2014, FIFA lifted a ban on players wearing religious head coverings during games.
While she waits for the evolution of her sport, she focuses on her training. Boxing is something that is always there for her: “If I’m in a bad mood, emotional or having a bad day, my mom will say, ‘Get your butt out the door and get to the gym.’ ”
While her mother says the family is “patient and hopeful” that a rule provision will come down, Zafar is taking her enthusiasm for the sport in another direction, one that brings nearly the same note of excitement to her voice as merely talking about boxing does. “I’m teaching a boxing class at the gym on Saturday mornings,” she said, “and I have eight [students] wearing hijab in the class.”
Like her mother, her father sees boxing as a larger part of Amaiya’s life. “As a parent, person of faith and a person who admires integrity, determination and fight, as a father I am bursting with joy to see my daughter so strong in her quest to be the best in her faith and in life,” he wrote to The Post. “She has a competitive endeavor that flows through her actions and produces the most powerful and the most positive energy that is felt by those who know her. She gets respect by her actions and demands her place in a world through resiliency. She holds on to the rope of honor and gives back 110 percent to those she mentors. She lives by example and breathes by determination. This is my daughter Amaiya Zafar and I am her father.”