Amaiya Zafar is a 16-year-old amateur boxer from St. Paul, Minnesota, who has never gotten the chance to fight in an official competition. She’s a Muslim who wears a hijab and covers her arms and legs while fighting ― which isn’t approved by international boxing regulations ― so she’s usually banned from the ring before her matches even begin.
When Zafar and her family arrived at the Sugar Bert Boxing National Championships in Kissimmee, Fla. on November 20, they knew she may not be able to fight. But what they weren’t expecting was that a stranger ― Zafar’s opponent, in fact ― would come to her defense.
When Zafar was disqualified, her potential opponent, Aliyah Charbonier, was not happy. So Charbonier decided to put solidarity before victory, telling Zafar that she would share the winner’s belt.
“She told me that what they did wasn’t fair,” Zafar told The Huffington Post. “That she hadn’t earned the belt.”
Charbonier told The Washington Post that she felt “really bad” for Zafar.
“It’s just not right,” the boxer said. “It’s not really a distraction for me what she’s wearing. She still had on gloves and headgear.”
In the end, both girls reportedly went home with belts. Although they were strangers before, Zafar said they’ve been in touch ever since the championships.
“It was an emotional moment. Because it’s been three years that I’ve been training, and I got so close [to fighting],” Zafar said. “When she gave it to me, it felt like she was recognizing ... how hard I worked and how unfair it is.”
Sarah O’Keefe, Zafar’s mother, said that after she got disqualified, her daughter was trying her best to stay calm and patient. Zafar isn’t the type to get angry or upset ― instead her mindset is to accept whatever happens as the will of God. So when Charbonier gave Zafar her belt, it was a powerful reminder that in addition to working hard to get these rules changed and trusting in God’s providence from above, there are also people who were willing to stand in solidarity with her.
“It showed that even though Amaiya is alone in her request, she’s not alone in action or prayer,” O’Keefe told The Huffington Post. “Aliyah giving her the belt made a bigger statement than we could have planned for. She’s saying, ‘You’re not alone, I stand with you.’”
Zafar began boxing about three years ago. She fell in love with the sport after watching a live boxing game. She said she appreciates the discipline that the sport demands.
“When I’m in the gym, it’s like the real Amaiya,” she said. “Like dripping sweat and tears and screaming. Just working really hard.”
O’Keefe said that it’s been tough for her daughter to find opponents that are suitable to her weight and her age group. In addition, USA Boxing, a national governing body for Olympic-style boxing in the U.S., follows a strict dress code set up by the International Boxing Association (AIBA).
Michael Martino, executive director of USA Boxing, told MPR News last year that boxing while wearing leggings and long-sleeved shirts is a “safety issue.”
“If you’re covering up arms, if you’re covering up legs, could there be preexisting injury?” Martino said. “And then if someone got hurt during the event, the referee wouldn’t be able to see it.”
O’Keefe said that she’s hoping to see these organizations engage in a discussion about this issue, and about how to get more Muslim women involved in boxing.
“If it’s about safety, let’s negotiate and think about what we’re trying to accomplish,” O’Keefe said. “So far they haven’t yet had a conversation about what [Zafar] is trying to request and what accommodations to make.”
Requests for comment sent to USA Boxing and AIBA by The Huffington Post were not answered.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a national Muslim civil rights organization, is calling for USA Boxing and AIBA to make a religious exemption to uniform regulations ― following the lead set by organizations like the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), which have given Muslim women who wear hijabs a chance to compete in tournaments.
“All athletes should be able to compete in their sport of choice without facing roadblocks based on outmoded and discriminatory policies,” CAIR’s National communications director Ibrahim Hooper said in a press release.
Zafar is also hoping that the rules will change in time for her to compete in the Ringside World Championships, a competition for amateur boxers scheduled to take place next summer. She said she’s been heading to the gym an average of three to four hours every day to stay on top of her game.
“A big part of [my identity] is my religion and boxing,” Zafar said. “I don’t want to lose one of those for the other. I should be able to have both.”