The International Boxing Association has changed a rule to allow women boxers to wear a hijab and clothing covering their arms and legs. DW speaks with amateur boxer Amaiya Zafar about the rule change.
The International Boxing Association (AIBA) on Monday lifted a ban on hijabs and other full-body uniforms that fighters wear for religious regions.
It was a ban that had prevented Amaiya Zafar, an 18-year-old boxer from Oakdale, Minnesota in the United States, who has been boxing for five years, from competing at international level. The ban excluded her from qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, but the rule change will allow her to attempt to become an Olympian in 2024.
Zafar spoke to DW about the AIBA decision, boxing with a hijab and what the decision means for her career.
DW: How did you react to AIBA's rule change allowing hijabs in boxing?
Zafar: I'm so happy. I didn't think it was going to happen. I have been training as if someday it would, but everyone kept telling me it was never going to change. So I was just praying that it would. When I heard [that the rule changed], I didn't hear from AIBA. Somebody tagged me in something on Instagram saying: "Yes! Congratulations!” And I said "What are you talking about?" So I asked my coaches to see if it was true and they said "Congratulations. You did it." I'm so happy.
Zafar says past concerns raised by boxing authorities, for instance that a hijab might conceal facial injures, were just 'excuses'
What does this mean for your career now?
It means that I can finally showcase the skills I have been working on for all these years. I can truly prove myself. People know who I am, but the name that they know is because I stuck to what I believe in. They haven't seen my skills yet and I want to show that. So I'm excited that I have the chance to show that I'm not just an activist but the fighter that I am.
The International League for Women's Rights (ILWR), a French feminist group, has called for hijabs to be banned from the 2024 Olympic so women can compete free from religious restrictions. Do you feel your hijab is a religious restriction?
No. And if they are for women's rights, I don't understand why they would take away my right as a woman to show what I want to show and to hide what I want to hide. That doesn't make sense. It's a personal decision if I want to wear a hijab or not. A hijab ban doesn't empower anybody. It just takes away my right to represent myself the way I want to represent myself.
It is 100 percent a personal choice. I've worn my hijab since I was young because I choose to. There have been situations where people around me have said, "You can take it off if you want." My parents have never swayed me in either direction. I understand that in some parts of the world people do not have full autonomy, but for myself it is truly 100 percent my decision. That's why when they told me you can't compete with your hijab, I was like: that doesn't make sense. If you wear glasses so you can see better, I'm not going to tell you to take your glasses off. It's you. Nobody else can decide for you. That was the way I was raised.
Does wearing a hijab or full body clothing impact your boxing?
No. It doesn't alter my performance in a negative or positive way. It really is like wearing a hat. It doesn't affect the way I perform — except for in the winter when I run outside I'm not as cold.
Do you face discrimination, whether it's from your opponents or the crowd or around other parts of the sport because of what you wear during matches?
Of course there are people online that have something to say, but I don't experience a lot to my face because people are cowards and don't want to say stuff like that to my face. But I've never had opponents or officials say anything to me. I'm just another person. They have never reacted to me differently because I wear a hijab. Of course there are ignorant people, but I try to educate them and move on.
USA Boxing has previously said wearing a hijab or a full-body uniform could be a safety concern, covering a preexisting injury or an injury during a match.
They were excuses, 100 percent. I've had doctors, fighters, coaches, all types of different people that are qualified to say that type of thing who say, "That doesn't make sense.” A doctor can check me out before a fight, during a fight, after a fight. Somebody gave the example: If you dislocate your arm, you don't know. First of all, if I'm in pain, I'll tell you I'm in pain. People play football with full clothing, and you don't have the same kind of worry. There is a doctor there and he can check them out. I was just waiting for them to see that this was not a valid argument.
Amaiya Zafar began boxing when she was 13 years old. In April 2017, she became the first Muslim to box in a hijab after receiving an exemption from USA Boxing. She has since won the women's flyweight title at the 2018 Sugar Bert National Boxing Championship in Orlando, Florida -— a competition from which she was disqualified two years prior — and a Ringside World Championship in Kansas City. Her goal is represent the United States at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
The interview was conducted by Davis VanOpdorp.