Photo by Kamran Ali Gulwaiy
In her first grappling competition, Anita Nisar won all her matches, dislocated two of her opponent’s elbows, and was named “Best Athlete” of the event. Anita is a unique woman in a unique situation—she works ceaselessly to compete in MMA, a sport in which she has no competition. Her dream, to become Pakistan’s first female MMA fighter, and eventually a UFC champion, is currently encumbered by the reality that there is no one in Pakistan she can fight.
The lives of Pakistani women have been historically constrained culturally, socially, religiously, and spatially through systematic marginalization, but there is a growing shift in the culture as many girls and women are feeling empowered through practicing and participating in sports. As more families are invested in letting their girls play sports, and adult women are pursuing their education and careers before marriage, female participation is rising. Women are playing soccer, cricket, basketball, tennis, and other sports.But female athletics remain contentious, especially when the sport completely defies the established cultural and religious codes of Pakistani society. In a country where women are criticized and even threatened for trying to participate in the activities they love, the question is not how women’s MMA will become mainstream, it’s how will women’s MMA begin?An MMA fight requires two very necessary things in order to take place: two fighters, willing and able to pummel each other in the cage. In Pakistan, where the British game of Cricket remains the country’s favorite pastime, MMA is a peripheral sport for men, and female participation is virtually non-existent. This article cannot even attempt to fully explore the position of women in Pakistan because, like every other country in the world, Pakistani women have varied, individual experiences that cannot be encapsulated in one description. One woman’s experiences cannot constitute a full overview of the entirety of the country or of her sport…except perhaps in the one, very specific case of Anita Nisar, Pakistan’s first, and only, female MMA fighter.
Nisar is 21 years old and dedicating every moment of her life to training. Born in the Hunza region, a beautifully remote area of the country, Anita came to martial arts after a nearly fatal motorcycle accident six years ago. She was pronounced dead by the local doctors, and as her family and tribesmen gathered around her home to start preparing her body, she woke up. It was a few years later, when she left Karimabad, Hunza and moved to the country’s capital city of Islamabad, that she saw MMA on television for the first time.
“I was hooked," she told VICE Sports. "It looked scary but then I thought, I came back from the dead, I’m sure I can do this too.” This past April, Anita was one of nine women to compete in the Pakistan Grappling Challenge, a tremendous turn-out for female grapplers in Pakistan. She won two gold medals and was named the tournament’s best athlete, but none of her opponents are in a position to fight her in the cage. No woman in Pakistan is ready to fight Anita.
Anita trains in Islamabad at The Fight Fortress, a mixed martial arts gym owned by one of the country’s founding MMA advocates, Ehtisham Karim. Coach Ehtisham created an environment that is revolutionary in Pakistan, where men and women train together, but his bastion of egalitarianism received heavy criticism from all sides. The sexes are segregated in much of Pakistani public life, and the idea of men and women training together, and wrestling each other, was too much for some of his members.
“I was hooked. It looked scary but then I thought, I came back from the dead, I’m sure I can do this too.”
But Ehtisham has no regrets, and indeed revels in TFF’s innovative approach to training women and men equally. “Our basic idea behind starting co-training," he told VICE Sports, "was to contribute our two cents towards eradicating the narrative that a woman needs a man as her protector.” Other gyms in Pakistan are beginning to offer classes where women and men workout together, but TFF keeps all of their combat and self-defense classes mixed. While Anita’s teammates may not object to this novel scenario of desegregated training, the wider Pakistani culture, especially the more conservative or traditional communities, do not condone women training alongside men. In addition to the problem of women and men training together, MMA presents a dangerous issue for Pakistani women—the MMA uniform.Every place is ruled by a set of cultural codes, and for most people, it is only when one travels outside of one’s particular home that those codes become visible. In Pakistan and other Muslim countries, attire can be a point of contention between the necessities of sport and the requirements of society. Women do not wear shorts or typically show bare arms, although in a few sports, such as football, many players opt to wear shorts, despite criticism and even death threats. Ehtisham explains, “They can’t fight in sports bras and vale tudo shorts obviously—they’ll get killed. We cannot have them fight in Shalwar Kameez [traditional Pakistani dress consisting of a long sleeve tunic worn over loose-fitting pants] or a Burqa either, so we’ll have to settle for something that’s not too revealing nor too uncomfortable. I know it’s a non-issue in most parts of the world, but that’s how it is here.”
And the point is not that Anita’s team is focusing solely on sartorial issues, but rather that the fact that her attire will generate consternation and perhaps even violence is demonstrative of the bigger issue—how do female fighters create their own space when every decision, even as seemingly insignificant as what she will wear, could incite violence? Fighters are already dealing with the dangers of MMA, but for Anita and other Pakistani women, the dangers might be greater out of the cage.Finding a fight for Anita is not just her personal endeavor—it is the first step in building the foundation for women’s MMA in Pakistan. She has female training partners, and there are other gyms in the country where women train MMA, but not necessarily with the goal of competing and, right now, not at the level that would prepare them to compete with Anita in the cage. Anita’s brother, Ali Sultan, a fighter and coach at TFF, knows that Anita’s struggle is emblematic of the need to involve more Pakistani women in MMA. “One of the effective ways of involving women in MMA would be to engage existing athletes who are already competing in traditional martial arts such as judo, karate, and taekwondo.”Building women’s MMA in Pakistan requires creating an environment where women feel safe and supported while training and an infrastructure that makes female fighters more visible and connected to potential competition opportunities. Anita believes that her near-death experience inured her to the fear of competition or of disrupting social norms. “My message to Pakistani women aspiring to take BJJ, kickboxing or MMA is [to] stop looking for a sedentary life, and train like it’s your last day.”Anita’s success in MMA will help generate more future fighters, but her immediate need is an opponent. Anita has an offer to fight for an Asian promotion and compete against an established professional fighter. Because she is at the forefront of the sport in Pakistan, and because her options are limited by the dearth of local opponents and the cost of traveling to fight abroad, she won’t be able to spend time as an amateur. Ehtisham explains, “She cannot duck and avoid someone just because they’re more experienced than her. As long as it’s a human they put in there in front of us, we’re good, we’ll handle them. Is it a hard and rough way to start a career? Yes! But it is the only way in front of Anita right now and she is more than willing to take it.”Fighting is all about risk, and for Anita, it is a worthwhile one. Not just for herself, but for Pakistani girls. “I don’t know where my journey will take me, but wherever I am, I will make the most of my opportunities and I will show the world that Pakistani women are not behind anyone in any area. I want to make MMA a popular sport for girls.”Whatever path Anita takes, she will endure criticism, from a Western world that reductively denigrates her entire country, to the people in her country who see her as an affront to conservative cultural legacies.But she will also have support—from her coaches and teammates who bleed and sweat and fight alongside her, and the many young girls and women who are looking to establish their own sense of agency by playing a sport, seeking an education, breaking the glass ceiling. Anita's fight is also Pakistani women's fight. It's one against misogyny, oppression, and sexism and it will continue until she lands the fight she really wants, one that finds her in the cage.