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.