Sixteen-year-old Amaiya Zafar has had to choose between her Muslim faith and her love of boxing in the past. But thanks to a new decision from USA Boxing, the Minnesota teen will no longer have to make that call.
The amateur boxer from the St. Paul area had never gotten the chance to fight in an official competition. As part of her Muslim faith, Zafar chooses to wear a hijab and cover her arms and legs while fighting ― which isn’t approved by international boxing regulations. She’s usually banned from the ring before her matches begin.
But Zafar and her family received news last week that USA Boxing, the national governing body for the sport, was offering her an exemption to its clothing mandate, which requires fighters to wear sleeveless jerseys and shorts.
“Boxing is about to get a whole lot better because they’re being inclusive of a whole group of people who couldn’t compete before,” the high schooler told NBC News on Sunday.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a leading Muslim advocacy organization, released a statement applauding the decision. “This is a positive step forward in the continuing struggle for religious freedom in our state and nation,” Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of CAIR-MN, said in the release.
Zafar is the first boxer to receive the benefits of a new rule regarding religious exemptions that the USA Boxing board of directors is expected to adopt in June, according to CAIR. The rule will apply only to local “non-advancing matched bouts,” and a request for a religious exemption must be made for each event in which the boxer wishes to participate.
USA Boxing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zafar is scheduled to compete at the Spring Fling Amateur Boxing match on April 29 in Minneapolis. She will be the first boxer fighting in a USA Boxing-sanctioned event in a hijab, CAIR said.
She earned the right to showcase her skills, and I’m happy for her. But it’s just the first step in letting her achieve her dreams. Nathaniel Haile, Amaiya Zafar's boxing coach
“This is a big step,” Zafar’s coach, Nathaniel Haile, told the Star Tribune. “She’s put a lot of labor into this. She earned the right to showcase her skills, and I’m happy for her. But it’s just the first step in letting her achieve her dreams.”
The teen hopes to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, though she’ll have to fight for her right to wear modest attire there, too. The international boxing association, AIBA, will have to modify its uniform requirements for Zafar and others who prefer to wear religious or modest clothing to be able to compete abroad.
Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s director of communications, said in a statement: “We welcome this partial victory and look forward to the day when athletes of all faiths may compete nationally and internationally while maintaining their religious principles.”