Born to Fight
World, meet Lareb.
The more I get to know her, the more inspired I become. Lareb is 22 and in the application process of becoming a member of the RCMP. She is a woman of passion, strength and confidence.
As Lareb began high school and started the path to discovering her passions, she found herself inspired by the combat arts. In a phase of her life at 14 years old when she questioned many things, Lareb started to notice the desperate lack of Muslim female representation in combat sports such as Muay Thai and Boxing. She always saw young Muslim boys take part in sports like Karate, but was repeatedly told that girls are too weak and too pretty to be fighters.
I visit Lareb at Ajax Boxing Club where she practices 4 times a week, with mostly older males. As I wait for Lareb to put on her handwraps, I can’t help but dwell into the atmosphere inside the gym. A buzzer goes off every few minutes, which I later learn is the cue for fighters to stop and switch up their routine. People come in one by one, smile and say hello, butt knuckles with Lareb and go on their way to prepare for their training. From the wall of the gym, hangs a poster which reads “Ajax Boxing Club Rules” and some humorous rules with slight truths to them. One of them says “If you bring somebody new to the class and they break a rule, you do the punishment”. I read over the rules a few times. I don’t want Lareb do any punishments on my behalf.
Lareb is the only female fighter in her club. However, that does not stop her from training her hardest and putting her 100% into every training session. Since boxing in a traditionally wrapped headscarf can sometimes be physically challenging, Lareb covers her hair at the gym with a beanie.
Lareb bundles her fists with her handwraps and changes into her indoor boxing shoes, I notice her hoop earrings still hang from beneath her beanie. Before I have a chance to ask, Lareb tells me she always wears her earrings when she is training by herself in the gym. “Boxing is a very personal sport. It helps me discover myself”. Lareb had been told several times that she was "too pretty to fight" or "fighting would ruin her face". She keeps her earrings on because it makes her feel beautiful. It is a symbol of exactly the stereotype she wants to break: that pretty girls CAN fight.
Wearing earrings is not a hazard until she goes into the ring to spar, which is when she takes them off. She shows me a spot in the gym in between two rows of boxing pads, facing the mirror. This is her favourite corner to practice her moves in. It helps her focus on her fighter self. Lareb shares that boxing is very much a mental game against yourself and your opponent. It’s all about outsmarting your opponent: making them get used to a pattern, and then catching them by surprise.
“I had to prove to myself and those around me that girls aren’t fragile. They aren’t just meant to sit at home.”
Her first encounter with combat arts was at a beginner kickboxing course at the Pickering Community Recreation Centre. As her interest grew and she signed up for more boxing classes, her parents began to feel concerned for her safety and she heard statements like 'Muslim girls aren't allowed to fight' from people in the community. At that point, Lareb didn’t think her identity could be composed of both her religion and her love for boxing. She wondered “How can something I love so much be so looked down upon?” Lareb gradually found that the limitations lay not in her religion but in her culture; and although it stemmed from an innocent idea of protection and safety for a woman, it ought not to limit her from pursuing her dreams. Lareb knew boxing was her passion and she wanted to continue it:“I had to prove to myself and those around me that girls aren’t fragile. They aren’t just meant to sit at home.”
Lareb’s parents had raised a passionate, devoted and fearless woman and Lareb wanted to be nothing less. As the eldest child, Lareb takes pride in caring for her younger siblings and cousins. With her enormous family (consisting of 62 cousins), she always finds opportunities to teach her younger female cousins how to defend themselves. Everyday, Lareb is one step closer to eliminating the cultural barriers and limitations that still exist regarding Muslim women being fighters.
Path to Discovery
For Lareb, boxing paved the path to discovering herself. When she read about Islamic warriors in pre-dated times, she learned that many of them were women. Lareb has combined her identity as a fighter and as a Muslim to become an unstoppable force. “My sole belief is that all my capabilities and success comes from Allah, and He has made me powerful in my sport and showed me success through it.”
Although people see boxing as a violent sport, Lareb finds it rather safe and spiritually healing. She says boxing is all about controlling yourself, your anger and who you are inside of the ring. It comes down to knowing yourself and your capabilities. Often when Lareb shows her friends and cousins how to box, she finds that many of the girls have never thrown a punch before or are too scared to do so. However, after teaching them a few tricks, she can see them light up with confidence and empowerment. Lareb is proud to be able to help girls and women discover their inner fighter self. Boxing allows her to be confident in her everyday life, knowing she is able to defend herself if she needs to do so.
With Islamophobia on a distinct rise, she finds that many women are afraid to represent their religion and to wear the hijab in public. Lareb is so passionate about changing that; it is what drives her to be a pronounced boxer. She wants people to know that Muslim women are far from weak. They are undoubtedly strong and capable.
And people told her girls couldn’t fight. Lareb was born to fight.
If you want to get in touch with Lareb, you may reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please leave a comment below or email us with any feedback.
We are posting blogs featuring more inspirational and dedicated hijab-wearing athletes- Muslimahs with all kinds of different backgrounds, sports, and stories. See you soon on our next episode.
Bend it Like Ameera
Let me tell you about Ameera.
An intelligent, hilarious, extremely ambitious and talented athlete who knows how to make her mark. That is Ameera Seiyad. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Ameera for several years now and I wish I could make all of you meet her in person because my words won’t do justice to the charisma and personality that beams out of her.
Ameera started playing soccer at the age of 5. She shares with me the story of how this happened. Ameera’s family did not have a television set for a very long time and her Dad always promised to buy Ameera and her siblings a TV if they went outside and played sports. “Every day, we would go outside, we would pay basketball, soccer, hockey, tennis, we would play anything, and after a year, none of us even brought up ‘Dad we want a TV’. We fell in love with the outdoors and playing sports.” Ameera’s father soon noticed her talent, decided to enroll her in a recreational soccer league and the rest is history.
“It’s so nice to especially see the little Muslim girls running up to you, because they can relate. They feel comfortable approaching you”.
Once a week, Ameera tries her best to engage children around her with soccer. She goes to a park in the community and does a couple of pickups, which brings her a crowd of kids who are mesmerized by her talent. “It’s so nice to especially see the little Muslim girls running up to you, because they can relate. They feel comfortable approaching you”. Ameera lives in Flemingdon Park, an area of Toronto with a dense Muslim population.
When we asked Ameera about her future plans regarding athletics, she didn’t say “I want to be the best soccer player in the world”. She had a very simple answer: “I want to teach my nieces and nephews how to play soccer”. Ameera is all about giving back. She feels it is crucial to involve kids in sports at a young age and to share with them people whom they can look up to, and relate to. If I was a 8 year old kid who saw Ameera with a soccer ball at the park often, I would go to the park just so I could watch her and learn from her. Heck, I would even do that as a 21 year old adult… If I lived even remotely close to her.
Did I mention Ameera is a phenomenal story teller? And I love stories. If you ask Ameera one question, you will get 50 answers. Answers to questions you knew you always had but could never put into words.
When Ameera got scouted at 9 years old and had the chance to play Rep soccer for free with Leaside, she remembers standing out, considering the colour of her skin and the fact that she would be covered head-to-toe, with tights under her shorts and a hijab over her head. And it felt uncomfortable.
Ameera says she could’ve easily taken off the hijab, she was only 9, but she didn’t because even though she didn’t understand it fully at the time, she knew it was a part of her identity.
She specifically remembers the time when her dad, a hefty man, with a big beard and Jubba showed up to her first game and watched his daughter play. He was also the odd one out amongst a large group of already befriended soccer moms. Ameera recalls the funny looks they received on the first day, compared to the very different hard-earned look of respect and acknowledgement they received at the end of the season, after witnessing Ameera’s talent. She shares that by the end of the season, her dad was the snack man; he had the oranges, the granola bars, he brought Kulfis and freezies. “He didn’t care, he was enjoying it so much.”
This was a memory Ameera says she will cherish forever. It is what instilled in her the perseverance to continue playing soccer, and allowed her to embrace the fact that she will always stand out on the field, and she will always look different. It is up to her to move forward from it and use her experiences to educate and empower others so that these very experiences won’t stop other 9-year old girls from pursuing their athletic talent.
When we were taking pictures of Ameera to share on the blog, we noticed only one of her socks was rolled up. “That is my swag, I only roll one up”, she laughs. Her purple and gold socks, represent her university Wilfrid Laurier, where Ameera partakes in competitive soccer and field hockey intramurals. She demonstrates to us how to use the ball and the hockey stick in field hockey and explains there is lots of stoppage and turnovers, but it “comes clutch” because it gives players a break. Her soccer team has won the championship two years in a row. Her team is made up of girls that she met at soccer tournaments while she played at her high school Marc Garneau CI, and later reconnected with after finding out they would all be going to the same school.
Ameera captained her soccer team in high school for four years. Every year, she would be part of at least two teams, sometimes three, although that was technically against the rules. “Perks of having coaches love you,” Ameera smirks. The fall semester would consist of basketball or field hockey, and the summer semester, of course, soccer… sometimes accompanied by ultimate frisbee or softball. Calling Ameera an exceptional leader and phenomenal athlete is an understatement. She is so much more.
I could listen to Ameera talk forever. Along with being intelligent and inspiring, she is a hilarious person to chat with. I am beyond grateful that I get to share Ameera’s story with you all. If you ever get a chance to speak with Ameera, I warn you, be ready to have your mind blown away. Ask her questions, she has got tons of stories and opinions to share, all of which if I had included it all in this blog post would’ve made you think I was obsessed with her.
I think I already am.
"I love Ameera's drive for sport. You can hear the passion in her voice and see it in her eyes when she shares her experiences in sport. Throughout her life, she has been determined to not let barriers hold her back. As well, Ameera is a true sport leader, as she has been actively involved in coaching and promoting girls sport and physical activity within her community. She is confident, driven and competitive. A coach's dream!"
- Lauren Williams
If you want to get in touch with Ameera Seiyad, you may reach her by e-mail at email@example.com. Please leave a comment below with any feedback.
We will be posting weekly blogs featuring more inspirational and dedicated hijab-wearing athletes- Muslimahs with all kinds of different backgrounds, sports, and stories. Stay tuned for weekly episodes!
Name a more bada$$ hijabi, I’ll wait.
When I first met Aisha for her in-person interview, an indescribable feeling of pride, contentment and awe overcame me. I know my reaction was no different than the 5 committee members who were interviewing her.
Aisha Muslim is a fighter. On 6 out of 7 days of the week, Aisha can be spotted at the Warrior Muay Thai Gym in North York, Toronto practising her skills or teaching them to the kids' class. When we visited Aisha at her gym for the photoshoot, I watched in awe as she ploughed into the boxing pad, kick after kick, fully maintaining her composition and concentration.
“Sometimes you train 6 times a week for 4 months before taking part in a fight, only to lose and that’s okay”
When Aisha was younger, she competed in horseback riding for 8 years. She used to train at a family friend’s farm in Stouffville. However, horseback riding proved to be a very expensive sport and as she grew older, it became less and less practical for her to continue. Although her family always supported her athletic adventures, Aisha did not take part in sport clubs during high school and the beginning of university due to academic commitment and high sports fees.
One day, at 19 years old, she saw a female character in a superhero movie do martial arts, which inspired Aisha, who was looking for an outlet to lose weight, to try it out. Aisha was in nursing school at Ryerson University in Toronto when she decided to give Muay Thai a shot. Starting a sport later in life and at a more mature age than most athletes gave Aisha the privilege of making the conscious decision to be a fighter, while balancing nursing school, and hence value both school, and Muay Thai that much more.
Muay Thai is the cultural martial art of Thailand and is widely practiced around the world. Using various clinching techniques including punches and kicks, fighters use their feet, elbows, knees and shins in the combat sport.
Aisha stuck with Muay Thai because it taught her new skills, while consequently allowing her to work towards her goal of becoming physically fit. As she became better at fighting and took part in competitions, Aisha fell in love with the competitive aspect of the sport. She says Muay Thai has, most of all, instilled in her commitment and perseverance, teaching her to be the best fighter she can be, even though her opponents may be better. “Sometimes you train 6 times a week for 4 months before taking part in a fight, only to lose and that’s okay”, shares Aisha.
Along with the adrenaline and energy that overcomes her when fighting, Aisha says that the patience and perseverance is what she can take away after every training session and every fight, whether she wins or loses. She can relate this experience to nursing school, as it was difficult day in and day out, but extremely rewarding in the end.
Although Aisha competes alone when in the ring, she feels connected to her group at the gym as if all of them were teammates on a soccer team. She often goes to her teammates’ fights to show them support and cheer them on. After Aisha won her fifth fight, around the same time as her birthday, the members at her gym came together to gift her her very own pair of Muay Thai gloves. She showed them to me when I visited her at her gym and I have to tell you, the gloves were nothing but grand.
Aisha shares that there are many Muslims at Warrior Muai Thai gym but most of them are male; she is one of the 3 girls and the only hijab-wearing one. At first, Aisha admits she found the environment uncomfortable and tried to distance herself. However, the owner, who is also a Muslim, ensured that the environment was inclusive and that she felt supported by her teammates. Aisha says her male teammates are always incredibly caring and respectful of her personal boundaries, especially when it comes to clinching. Clinching requires physically grabbing on the opponent’s body, arms or legs, similar to wrestling. It is Aisha’s personal decision to not engage in clinching with her male teammates, as she considers making significant physical contact with males to be a sacrifice of her religion: one that she is not willing to make. During training, when her teammates partner up to clinch, her options are limited to the handful of girls in the gym, which sometimes puts her at a disadvantage because they are not as competitive as some of the men. However, in the bigger picture, clinching is only a small portion of Muay Thai so this limitation does not hinder her fighting skills much. Her restriction with clinching is not a concern during competitions where athletes fight opponents belonging to the same gender and weight class.
Aisha, who wears hijab during and outside of her martial art, wears it in a rather unique way, which is non-slip and, must I say, looks great! She changed her hijab style after getting into Muay Thai, and was able to find a wrapping style which did not get in the way of her fighting. Her advice to coaches and athletic instructors training Muslim female athletes, especially hijab wearing ones, is to let the athlete create their own boundaries and take time to understand their decision in order to support them as they grow as athletes and individuals.
We asked Aisha if she had any Muslim athletes who she would consider role models. She shared with us Iman Barlow, a 23-year old fighter from the UK who defends a number of titles. Aisha is inspired by her ability to balance being a teacher and a professional fighter, which resonates with her plans of being a nurse and a professional fighter in the future. Before Aisha can become a professional fighter, she needs to compete in 20 fights. Aisha has competed in 7 fights so far, and won 5 of them. She has also participated in a number of demos, which allows athletes to gain fighting experience with no winner being declared.
When we visited Aisha at her gym, following her mini photoshoot, she offered to teach me how to punch. I was thrilled because I had always had an interest in Muay Thai. A few years ago, I had taken a weekend self-defense course called Wen-do, which was the closest I came to practising martial arts. Aisha handed me a pair of gloves from the box in her gym which had all the communal equipment. She warned me that my hands would smell like sweat after I remove the gloves but I was so excited to learn, it did not matter. Aisha taught me how to do a throw a few punches and cross jabs; I could feel the concentration and adrenaline take over me. After giving me some quick pointers, Aisha invited us to attend beginners classes that the gym offers. She continues to encourage people to stay committed to what they love doing.
Listening to Aisha speak about her Muay Thai experience and love for competing and fighting left me without words. Her voice, soft-spoken and delicate, contrasts well with her edgy personality. The three words Aisha uses to describe herself are smart, brave and heart. Aisha Muslim is nothing short of genuine and inspiring.
"Was thrilled to meet Aisha. Not only did her poise and confidence impress me but her dedication to her sport and competition inspired me. Particularly when she said “I like fighting and winning”. Yes, it can be as simple as that."
- Shireen Ahmed
If you want to get in touch with Aisha Muslim, please reach her by Instagram, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, especially if you are a Muslim female considering taking up Muay Thai. Show her some love, let her know that you read about her here and make sure to tell her how inspiring she is! Please leave a comment below with any feedback.
Aisha Muslim is just the beginning of our Hijabi Ballers movement. We will be posting weekly blogs featuring more inspirational and dedicated hijab-wearing athletes- Muslimahs with all kinds of different backgrounds, sports, and stories. See you on June 16 for our next episode.