The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She fought to box in a hijab. Now she’s inspiring the next generation of Muslim women fighters.

Amaiya Zafar was once barred from boxing because she refused to remove her hijab to fight. Now she’s aiming to box in the Olympics. (Caroline Yang for MPR News)
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Amaiya Zafar finally got her chance Saturday evening. The 16-year-old Muslim boxer from Oakdale, Minn., who has fought for almost two years to obtain a waiver to participate in amateur fights while wearing a hijab, wasn’t exactly sure what it would be like, but she knew this much: Psychologically and physically, she was ready to become the first amateur allowed by USA Boxing to compete in a hijab.

Her family, friends, coaches, fellow boxers, fans and national media crowded into Richard Green Central Gym in Minneapolis. They saw Zafar fall to Isabella Hendrickson in a third-round split decision. It wasn’t the result Zafar might have written in her dreams, but it was a learning experience.

“With so much outside pressure to perform and against a much heavier and more experienced fighter, she not only held her own but had moments of true grit and explosive energy,” her father, Mohammad, wrote on Facebook. In an email to The Post, he added that “she will be harder on herself because she knows she could have won. She fights like a pro boxer, so her hits are harder but calculated. In amateur boxing it is the movements regardless of actual, solid hits that count. Plus [it being her] first fight with media all over her was hard, too. I am not just saying that as a father, but I know Amaiya.”

Zafar took a day to reflect on her experience and said on a phone call Monday morning that it “was emotionally exhausting” because, along the way, her quest has attracted the attention of national media. “There was so much buildup and so much going on, my coach told me, ‘You’re not going to want to do anything [the day after the fight].’ ”

It all happened so fast, it was a blur, she said. “There were so many cameras in my face.”

Meet the Minnesota girl fighting to box while wearing a hijab

By Monday, she reported that she was more tired than sore. “I know I could have done better, but it was my first fight and it was crazy. It was so different being in the ring for a fight, so different from sparring. I couldn’t hear anything, the crowd was so loud and so many people were there. All I could hear was [Hendrickson]. I definitely need more experience. Of course, I’m upset I lost.”

When she stepped out of the ring, she was “swarmed,” she said. “All these little kids were crying. Not because I lost, but because they knew something [historic] was happening.”

Zafar, who is taking college courses in sport and exercise sciences at St. Paul College while finishing high school, is teaching others to fight at Circle of Discipline and knows her legacy may lie with preparing the next generation. That group of female Muslim boxers shouldn’t find it as difficult to balance their religion with a love of sports. “I think the rules are old school,” Zafar said in December 2015. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting them changed.”

USA Boxing’s executive director, Mike McAtee, said in a statement emailed to The Post that it is “in the process of amending our competition rules specifically to accommodate the clothing and grooming mandates of our boxers’ religions. These rules will provide exemptions so that athletes like Ms. Zafar are allowed to box without running afoul of their beliefs.”

USA Boxing plans to consider exemptions on an individual basis, but McAtee went on to point out that boxers who hope to compete internationally must do so under rules set by the International Boxing Association (AIBA). Its officials have not responded to Post requests for comment. The Council on American-Islamic Relations welcomed the exemption, adding that FIFA and the International Weightlifting Federation have lifted their bans on religious headgear, including hijabs. And Nike is launching a line of athletic wear aimed at Muslim women.

An opponent shares victory with Amaiya Zafar

Zafar, who turns 17 this month and hopes to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is petite and knows that finding opponents her age and size will not be easy, so she also is training others who wear hijabs, shattering the myth of “hitting like a girl.” That was the rap on Zafar when she first took up the sport at 13 and stepped into the ring against a boy.

“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,’ ” Zafar said in 2015. 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.”

Zafar, whose coach told her that the loss “just shows you’re not perfect,” is looking for her next fight and hopes to line up two more this summer. Saturday proved to her that she has skill, but needs experience. For now, she says, it’s “back to the office” and she planned to celebrate Monday with a run.

Whatever comes next, Amaiya has already amazed her father. “I have seen her fight and train with pro and amateur men boxers and know she has an unbelievable amount of stamina and can go a long time fighting with no muscle fatigue. Hits don’t faze her. So none of those were my concerns,” he said. “I was just in unbelief that Amaiya made this rule change happen and she is only 16.

“When she was a little girl around two or three she use to pretend she is 16. She used to say I am Amaiya and I am 13 and I am so and so who can do this and this. To see her at 16 going to full-time college, driving herself around, mentoring young girls, and to walk into her ring while making hijab part of the uniform single-handedly just brought tears in my eyes. Just like that three-year-old independent thinker who makes up her mind and confidently goes after her dreams, she now does so making it a reality. My girl is a trailblazer with a humble, strong heart who doesn’t just think of herself but how her resiliency will affect girls who will follow her.”