Amaiya Zafar is doing more than just looking for a fight. On any given weeknight, it's a safe bet that the 16-year-old boxer can be found training at the Circle of Discipline Boxing Gym in South Minneapolis, Minn. — a bustling, community-oriented place where seasoned professionals train alongside enthusiastic amateurs.
There’s no limit to Zafar’s passion for boxing, and it’s apparent after spending hours watching her train. She’s usually the last to leave — reluctantly shuffling out into the frigid Minneapolis night as the gym lights go out. “It’s like a family, you can’t just leave,” she says.
However, there’s one thing that makes the sport a bit difficult for the teenage boxer: She’s not actually allowed to fight. Zafar is a devout Muslim who wears a hijab and leggings, but the USA Boxing and the International Boxing Association have decided it’s a violation of their uniform code. The ongoing disagreement with boxing administrators is not exactly the kind of fight she had in mind when she picked up the sport in 2013. But in many ways, it has defined her young boxing career and garnered her national media attention.
Last November, Zafar traveled to Florida for the Sugar Bert National Boxing Championships, where she was supposed to go up against 15-year-old Aliyah Charbonier of Clermont, Florida. The fight administrators, however, gave her a simple choice: remove the hijab and leggings or forfeit the fight. Not willing to compromise her religious values, she chose the latter.
“I was ready, like, in the zone...we didn’t get anybody saying that I wouldn’t be able to fight, we thought it would just happen...then they disqualified me, that was it.” It was a pleasant surprise for the rejected fighter when Aliyah reached out and placed the victory belt on her lap, in a show of solidarity.
The fact that her religious garb is an issue has blindsided Zafar, who says she “didn’t see it coming at all” when she first started boxing, and certainly didn’t think she would ever be forced to forgo any matches over it. Boxing officials contend that the attire presents a safety issue because it prevents the referee from seeing any potential injuries there — a claim that seems to confound both Zafar and her coach, Adonis Frazier.
Even so, Zafar says it doesn’t get her down too much because she’s never “tasted that feeling of fighting,” she doesn’t know what she’s missing out. In fact, upon our first meeting, just a couple of months after the debacle in Florida, it was striking to see the energy and eagerness with which she trained. It was as if she hadn’t been discouraged at all.
For now, all Zafar can do is hope that boxing officials will change their minds, and in the meantime keep training — whether or not there’s a match on the horizon. Perhaps, just as fighting is important to her, she feels like it’s important that she’s paving the way for future Muslim-American girls who want to get into the sport.
“I’ve been training all this time, and I’ve never questioned why I’m doing it, I just do it…I’m training for someday when I fight, and if I don’t fight, it doesn't matter because I’m gonna get the next generation ready,” Zafar said.
Reassuringly, the hijab is slowly becoming normalized in the world of sports. Ibtihaj Muhammad made headlines when she competed at the 2016 U.S. Olympic fencing team in a hijab, becoming the first female Muslim-American athlete to win a medal. And recently, Nike announced it would start selling a sports hijab. It remains to be seen how long Zafar will have to wait before boxing follows suit and includes the hijab in the dress code.
“We’ll get it changed eventually,” Zafar proclaimed confidently, “even if I’m too old to fight.”