Ruqsana Begum is Britain's current Muay Thai kickboxing champion – and the only Muslim woman who is a national champion in her sport. Now, she's campaigning to change that, starting with a new range of specially designed sports hijabs that she hopes will get more Muslim women into sport. "I want to encourage a new generation of sisters to engage in sport, without embarrassment," she says.
Ruqsana got into boxing aged 17 at her local secondary school in east London. "From then on, that was it." But as a second generation British Bangladeshi, she was so worried about her family's reaction to her going out and training in a mixed-gender boxing gym, that for the first five years of her career, she boxed covertly.
"My family knew I was up to something, some sort of exercise class, but didn't know what it was," she says. "I knew that if I had told them it was martial arts, or kickboxing, in a male-dominated gym, they wouldn't have allowed me to do it. So I kept it a secret. I kind of sacrificed doing anything else for it."
She eventually told them after she finished a degree in architecture at Westminster University. "I was really in a lot of conflict trying to pursue the sport as well as trying to stay true to my upbringing and family values," she says. "I had a lot of difficulty kind of coming to terms with that, initially."
It's hard to image any other world-class athlete living in secret from their family – particularly ones with such an impressive list of accolades. In 2009, she was selected for Team GB, and she won her British title in 2010. A year later, she bought back gold at the European Club Cup Amateur Muay Thai Championship, and in 2012, won bronze at the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IFMA) championships.
Now her goal is to get more women into the sport. "I want to inspire young females from ethnic backgrounds who have faced barriers like I have - that's my objective at the moment," she says. This month, she'll launch her first range of sports hijabs, Sports Hijab by Ruqsana – specially designed sportswear for sisters made of breathable lycra. We caught up with her to talk about religion, sport, and the nightmare of challenge in a traditional hijab.
VICE: Hi Ruqsana. Did you wear hijab all through school?
RB: Not really, but I came from a very strict Muslim background so even wearing things like leggings or jeans wasn't allowed – my father would have had an issue with that. Back then it was really strict, whereas now I think people are a lot more laid back now than they were like 10 or 15 years ago.
You kept your boxing secret from your family for five years. What is it about the sport that you love so much?
I think the challenge, and also the fact that I could release my stress and in the gym. I love sport anyway, but it just kind of gave me that edge, that competitive edge. I'm not naturally confrontational, but I think it allowed me to be myself in the ring and in the gym.
You were studying for an architecture degree at the time. How did you you tell your family you wanted to go and be a full-time boxer?
Well, it wasn't something that I planned to do. I got selected for Team GB and it just kind of progressed from there. At that point, because of the recession, my family weren't pushing me to get back into architecture because they knew how limited the job market was. In 2010 after I won, I think they secretly thought, 'Oh, she's actually doing quite well, let's leave her to it.'
Have they ever come to see you fight?
They haven't, no, because a lot of my fights are abroad. I was selected for Team GB in 2009 and after that I fought at Doncaster. I didn't expect to win that fight, but I did, so I didn't really advertise it. It was more about my own journey than saying, "support me, be behind me". I just did this on my own. I didn't really need anyone to support me or be there; the fact they were turning a blind eye was enough for me.
How difficult was it to make considerations that non-Muslims might not have to make, such as Ramadan, for instance? Do you fast during that time?
I used to fast during Ramadan while doing training, but when I got diagnosed with M.E., it became quite difficult for me to fast and train, with my health. So I only fast if I feel good.
Muslim women are increasingly being portrayed in the media is as subservient – how important was it for you to try to rewrite that image?
When I was getting into my sport I obviously faced the whole thing about faith and sport, but then I realised that sport wasn't actually compromising my beliefs. Sport itself is something that's encouraged in our religion, and I think my family turned a blind eye because they realised that I hadn't changed. That was my outlet, and I think that gave me that release, from the family pressure and university and just life in general. The challenge just suited my personality.
As someone who now teaches young women, I suppose you can see first-hand how things have changed, in terms of having more agency over their decisions?
Oh definitely. I also think boxing builds their character and takes them away from feeling so shy and timid. They are so grateful there's a female running a session where they can go along, feel confident, feel comfortable and not compromise on their beliefs – because their husbands don't have to worry about where they are going and who they are training with. It's really good to see that other sisters are kind of taking up the sport without having that inner conflict that I had when I initially started. When I started out, we didn't have a lot of female instructors or coaches, and I was looking for one desperately. But there weren't any, hence one of the reasons I decided to become a coach, so I could provide that service for young girls.
You won your first belt in 2010. How did you get into competing?
I didn't have a lot of fights so I didn't have a lot of experience, but I had a lot of potential and I think my coach could see that. He knew I had the fighting spirit. I was fast-tracked – normally you compete first at regional level, and then go from English, to British, to then European and then to world competitions. I went straight in at British level because my coach felt that I was too strong for some of the girls. He just went, 'You know what, we'll put you in the deep end and if you get through it, you're a star of the night.'
Why did you want to create a sports hijab line?
I know the difficulties for these young girls and their families feel about them going into a sport, and I realised that if I could bridge that gap, it could create so many opportunities. If there was something like that to begin with, my parents would have been so much more comfortable with me taking up a sport. At the Olympics, I saw a couple of athletes had sports hijabs custom-made. I was really inspired by that. I thought, if it's there for league athletes, why can't it be there for regular people and young girls doing PE at school? I think it's important that they can wear a sports hijab that's fitted, comfortable, and breathable, that they can take off.
So what is great about your range of hijabs?
They're made out of Lycra – so it's a sports fabric. It's breathable, it's got the movement, and it fits comfortably around the face rather than using a safety pin, which is not very safe when you're training, especially in a sport like boxing. Also, I wanted sisters to feel confident wearing them, and not be judged by their appearance and what they're wearing. I want to encourage a new generation of sisters to engage in sport, without embarrassment.