Sixteen-year-old Amaiya Zafar was about to put on her gloves Sunday at the Sugar Bert Boxing National Championships in Kissimmee, Fla., when officials called off the impending fight.
Zafar, a devout Muslim from Oakdale, Minn., wears a hijab under her headgear as well as a shirt and leggings under her shorts and top. Such apparel has been deemed a violation of uniform regulations set by the International Boxing Association for reasons USA Boxing executive director Michael Martino called “clearly a safety issue.”
As a result, Zafar was disqualified, and her opponent, Aliyah Charbonier, was declared the winner — though that didn’t quite sit right with Charbonier. So she approached Zafar.
“This girl comes up to me then and puts her belt in my lap and says, ‘This is yours. They disqualified you. You’re the true winner. This is unfair,’ ” Zafar recalled over the phone Tuesday morning. “Then we started hugging each other, and the owner [of the event] came and got me to make sure I got [a belt.]”
Charbonier said she felt she needed to do something.
“It’s just not right,” the 15-year-old from Clermont, Fla., said. “It’s not really a distraction for me what she’s wearing. She still had on gloves and headgear. I felt really bad for her. They didn’t give her a chance to fight. We tried to tell them that it was all right, but for safety purposes they say they need to have a visual of your arms. And yet they still have 18-year-olds fighting 20-somethings. It wasn’t right.”
The journey to a bout hasn’t been easy for Zafar, who fell hard for boxing at a Minneapolis-area gym over two years ago and has since fought to fight in traditional dress. Her father, Mohammad, initially suggested that she take up fencing, to which she responded, “I’ll box before I’ll fence.” Mohammad Zafar worked with his daughter on the finer points of amateur boxing, and she found a group to train with, winning the support of male teammates after meeting one in the ring.
“All the boys around the ring kept telling him, ‘She’s just a girl. Punch her pretty little face off. You can’t let a girl beat you,’ ” Amaiya Zafar recalled last year. After she scored the final jab, Zafar had the last word with the boy and his friends: “I might be a girl, but you hit like a girl.”
While she developed a comfort level in the ring, she struggled to find opponents because she stands just over 5 feet tall and weighs about 114 pounds — with clothes on. Even if she could find a challenger, her Muslim faith is at odds with the sport’s dress code. “If you’re covering up arms, if you’re covering up legs, could there be preexisting injury?” Martino told MPR News last year. “And then if someone got hurt during the event, the referee wouldn’t be able to see it.”
Another issue: possibly setting a precedent for USA Boxing.
“We have 30,000 amateur boxers in the United States,” Martino said. “So if you make allowances for one religious group, what if another comes in and says we have a different type of uniform we have to wear? You have to draw a line someplace.”
USA Boxing continues to await a change by AIBA in Lausanne, Switzerland, even as FIFA, for instance, has lifted a ban on head coverings.
Seeking a wider pool of opponents, Zafar headed for the weekend competition in Florida with her family and others from the Circle of Discipline gym in Minneapolis.
“I know it’s been really hard for her [to find opponents],” said Charbonier, who said she took up the sport “two or three years” ago and has fought seven times. “It’s already hard for females to fight, and I don’t know if or when she’ll be able to do it again.”
That’s why Charbonier, in an act of sportsmanship, took matters into her own hands.
“I went to the people in charge of the belts and said she deserves it,” she said. Both girls will be going home with belts, Sugar Bert officials confirmed.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has supported Zafar’s pursuit and called for a religious exemption. “All athletes should be able to compete in their sport of choice without facing roadblocks based on outmoded and discriminatory policies,” Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national communications director, said in a statement. “We thank Ms. Zafar’s potential opponent for her principled act of solidarity.”
Bert Wells, the president and CEO of Sugar Bert Boxing Promotions, said that his organization hopes Zafar will return and be allowed to fight. “Boxing is diverse,” he said. “It’s open to athletes from all countries and cultures. We’d welcome her back.”
Meanwhile, Zafar will continue to wait and hope for a rule change. “I think the rules are old-school,” Zafar told The Post last year. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting them changed.”
Until then, both girls can only imagine what might have been if they had been permitted to meet in the ring Sunday.
“It would have been a really good fight,” Charbonier said.