American judoka Ronda Rousey became a household name in 2015. The world's media was transfixed, deeming her MMA's most powerful woman. Her very existence stood as a powerful "fuck you" to so many of the stereotypes that entrap women everywhere. But in many ways Rousey's fame still felt very much within the bounds of acceptability. She existed at the center of a strange venn diagram. Much to the fascination and excitement of men, Rousey was a beautiful union of their blonde high-school crush and their worst nightmare. Her bikini-body was celebrated as proof that the perfect woman truly does exist: A slender white warrior with long, sun-bleached hair, gently cradling her breasts in her pink boxing gloves on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But how far can we push the idea of what it means to be a strong woman? Could, say, a Muslim woman—a group so often dismissed as inherently submissive—be embraced as a serious professional fighter? That's the question blogger and kickboxer Sara Kawthar wanted to ask. With her blog-turned-Instagram account, Muslim Female Fighters, Sara presents an image of Muslim women rarely captured by the media: women who are tough as guts.
"The media crafts this narrative that Muslim women are submissive all the time. So I understand why people might initially think that," Sara explains. "Traditionally, Muslim women haven't been involved in too many sports, let alone combat sports."
In many Muslim countries, accessing gyms can be difficult for women. During international competitions the effect of this comes to the surface. Sara points to the Olympics, where there are plenty of female competitors from around the world, except Muslim countries. "It's sad," she says. "And it perpetuates this stereotype."
Sara's interest in showcasing the vast community of Muslim fighters around the world is a personal one. She's a proud Muslim woman who wears the hijab and also happens to be a kickboxer. "I've grown up participating in soccer leagues, found my way into taekwondo, and now kickboxing," she says, breaking into a laugh. "I guess I like using my legs!" In competition, Sara says she's never faced discrimination because of her faith, but considers herself "lucky." She says she knows "a lot of women who were given ultimatums… to either take that thing off [their headscarf], or to forfeit."
Organizations, like AIBA (and by extension USA Boxing) prohibit the hijab to be worn. "AIBA says that they have rules [regarding] 'safety' and 'pre-existing injuries.'" But if Muay Thai—a sport where there can be actual bruising and injury to legs and arms in competition—can adjust their rules and accommodate for cultural differences, so can boxing," Sara contends.
Muslim Female Fighters began because Sara wanted to see if there were, in her words, "other women like me." Other Muslim-female-hijab-wearing-kickboxing-enthusiasts out there in the world. "As it turned out, there were a lot of people," she says. "I wanted to use my blog to connect myself with these sisters who were [scattered] all over the world."
Australian professional Muay Thai fighter Carol Earl was the first woman to catch Sara's attention. Carol fights in her hijab too—the only professional fighter in Australia to do so—and she contends it would be easier for her to remove her veil, considering she is often met with unfavorable reactions from members of the crowd as she enters the ring. However, this outrage turns to admiration the moment people witness Carol's boxing prowess. Like Sara, she is on a mission to challenge how people perceive Islam; especially the false assumption that all Muslim women are subordinated.
On her blog, Sara would post interviews with these women. And slowly but surely the directory of Muslim female fighters grew. When she started the project, Sara assumed she'd eventually run out of women to showcase. "But to my amazement, after three years, the Instagram page is stronger than ever," she says. "Even my own perceptions of Muslim women being in these types of sports were altered throughout the project. There are so many more fighting enthusiasts amongst Muslim women than I originally realized."
In the past five years Sara says she's seen dramatic improvements in how Muslim female fighters are perceived. "Women's boxing was non-existent in Pakistan and is now blossoming all over the country with hopes of Pakistan sending a female boxer to the next Olympics. Egypt and Malaysia are grooming a lot of female Muslim MMA fighters," she says. "Turkey and Morocco have a vibrant women's kickboxing and Muay Thai scene. Maryam El Moubarik won a gold medal for Morocco in an international Muay Thai competition, clad in hijab!"
For Sara, the key to breaking down stereotypes is "to keep telling our story about inspirational Muslim women who are anything but submissive. People's perceptions will change." Sara is constantly blown away by supportive feedback in response to her project. There are even a portion of curious Muslim women who follow her updates with the hope to eventually find the motivation to put on their boxing gloves and join the movement. "It's amazing [for me] to meet women who at first felt terrified at the thought of going to the gym, let alone a kickboxing class, and then eventually go on to actually compete. The transformation is amazing."
Birthed from her blog is a tight-knit Facebook group, which features over 500 Muslim women who enjoy a variety of combat sports. "We encourage each other, share pictures of our competitions, all for the purpose of bettering ourselves," Sara considers.
When finally asked about how Sara feels about the US election results, she states, "[Muslim] women are getting beaten; their hijabs ripped off because of the political climate in which we live. This isn't just in the United States. It's more important than ever for all women, especially Muslim women, to [feel empowered]."
Follow Madison Griffiths on Instagram