Amaiya Zafar wants to box competitively, and modestly

Amaiya Zafar watches teammates spar
Amaiya Zafar, 15, watched her teammate spar in the boxing ring at St. Paul's Sir Cerresso Fort Boxing and Fitness on Wednesday.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Most evenings, you can find Amaiya Zafar at a boxing gym on St. Paul's east side.

Just 15 years old and 106 pounds, she's a small wisp of a thing. As the Oakdale teen spars in the ring, she also wears a hijab, the Muslim head covering for women.

She was hoping to enter her first competitive bout this week, but that milestone may have to wait.

Amaiya first got the idea to take up boxing two years ago, when she visited a friend's fencing competition with her father.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"And he's like, 'Why don't you start fencing?' And I was like, 'Uh, no. I'll do boxing, but I will not fence.'"

Amaiya Zafar trained Wednesday evening at Sir Cerresso Fort Boxing and Fitness in St. Paul.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

The next day she started training: First by watching videos and then by practicing her punches in the garage. She followed that with a visit to the gym and getting a coach. She was hooked.

Eventually, Amaiya knew she could do more than just train. But the teen wants to suit up on her own terms — fully covered, according to her Islamic principles.

"Boxing is really important to me, but so is practicing my religion. And I don't want to compromise one for the other. I want to be able to practice my religion to the full extent and to participate in my sport. Taking off my hijab isn't an option for me."

Her sport hijab, a stretchy piece of fabric she fashioned to wear under her protective headgear during competition, isn't really the issue.

Young boxer
Amaiya Zafar loves boxing, but officials say international rules do not allow covering her legs and arms.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

Amaiya has proposed to boxing authorities that she wear a long-sleeved Under Armour shirt and leggings beneath her standard tank top and shorts.

And that's a problem, says Michael Martino, executive director of USA Boxing.

"There's a safety issue involved. If you're covering up arms, if you're covering up legs, could there be preexisting injury? And then if someone got hurt during the event, the referee wouldn't be able to see it."

He insists rules of the international federation, including its strict dress code, limit what officials can do.

"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 some place."

Lacing up gloves
Amaiya Zafar talked with coach Jose Becerra of White Bear Lake as he helped lace her boxing gloves at Sir Cerresso Fort Boxing and Fitness in St. Paul.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

The Council on American-Islamic Relations disagrees. CAIR-MN Director Jaylani Hussein said the governing body needs to be more inclusive. Amaiya Zafar's request for permission to wear "modest Islamic attire" is reasonable and would follow similar accommodations for Muslim athletes in basketball and soccer, Hussein said.

"I think it's important for them to recognize that and to be able accommodate her needs. This would open up a tremendous opportunity for other young Muslim girls who are interested in boxing," he said.

Martino said he'd likely bring the matter to the attention of the International Boxing Association so it could consider possible religious accommodations.

One of Amaiya's coaches, Cerresso Fort, says it never occurred to him that her attire would be an issue. Fort said he sees potential in Amaiya.

Cooling down
Amaiya Zafar jumped rope as a cool down at Sir Cerresso Fort Boxing and Fitness.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"She a ball of energy. She works and works."

Amaiya had hoped to compete in the Golden Gloves at the Garden event in Duluth Friday, but did not officially register for the event.

Meanwhile, she's getting criticism on the other side, too. Some fellow Muslims have chimed in on CAIR's Facebook page to question why she'd even want to take up such a violent sport.

Amaiya's mom, Sarah O'Keefe-Zafar, says she had her own concerns, too. But she says the benefits of the sport outweigh the risks.

Getting ready for training
Amaiya Zafar adjusted her hijab before training in the boxing ring.
Caroline Yang for MPR News

"I would tell her, when you walk down the street you have to walk with confidence because you look so vulnerable and so tiny," O'Keefe-Zafar said. "My words didn't help shift that, but boxing did. And I watched her grow up from being a timid, small girl to be strong and confident."

For her part, Amaiya says she was crushed to learn that she may not be able to box competitively anytime soon.

"I've worked really, really hard for this. I should be able to fight just like anyone else can. And we have to make a change so I can."