At just 16 years old, Amaiya Zafar has already made herstory.
The Minnesota teen became the first person to compete in an official USA Boxing match wearing a hijab on Saturday. And though she didn’t win the match, Zafar scored an important victory for religious liberty.
“I felt like I had a purpose,” the athlete told reporters after the match, which was held in Minneapolis.
Zafar chooses to wear a hijab and cover her arms and legs as part of her observance of her Muslim faith. Until now, the teen has not been able to compete in matches overseen by USA Boxing, the national governing body for the sport, due to the organization’s uniform rules. She is typically banned from the ring before matches begin.
But Zafar and her family received news in April that USA Boxing was offering her an exemption to its clothing mandate, which requires fighters to wear sleeveless jerseys and shorts.
Mike McAtee, interim director of USA Boxing, later confirmed that the organization was updating its requirements to accommodate boxers like Zafar who previously had to choose between their faith and their sport.
“We are in the process of amending our domestic competition rules specifically to accommodate the clothing and grooming mandates of our boxers’ religions,” McAtee told HuffPost. “These rules will provide exemptions so that athletes can box without running afoul of their beliefs.”
A number of international sports organizations have updated their policies in recent years to be more accommodating of religious athletes. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) lifted its ban on head coverings in 2014. FIBA, basketball’s governing body, may soon follow suit.
The new USA Boxing rules apply only to local matches, and individual competitors have to request a religious exemption for each match in advance. McAtee also noted that International Boxing Association, or AIBA, would have to modify its uniform requirements for Zafar and others who prefer to wear religious or modest clothing to be able to compete abroad.
“AIBA’s rules apply to any event that serves as a qualifier (directly or indirectly) to international competition, including the Olympics, and thus there are some domestic competitions governed by AIBA’s rules, that would bar boxers requesting religious exceptions,” McAtee said in an email.
But Saturday’s match was a momentous occasion for Zafar, who aspires to someday compete in the Olympics. She said she hoped the match would inspire others. “Stand for what you believe in,” the teen said. “Don’t let arbitrary rules stop you from something that you love.”