Fifteen-year-old Amaiya Zafar is just a girl who wants to box.
But before she can get into the ring of a USA Boxing-sanctioned event, such as a Friday bout in Duluth in which she hoped to compete, she will have to fight for the right to wear a hijab under her helmet and long sleeves and tights. That attire would allow her to adhere to her Muslim beliefs.
International rules governing boxing dictate that she wear a sleeveless jersey and shorts that can’t go below her knees.
“We’re not the bad guys,” said Angel Villarreal, USA Boxing chief of officials. “It’s not us saying no. All we do is follow the rules. It’s not in my power to deviate from the rules.”
But after an exchange of e-mails and phone calls with Zafar, her family and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), USA Boxing will ask the international boxing organization — AIBA — for a provision in the rules that would allow Zafar to box in her modest attire, Villarreal said Wednesday. The organization is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“I could be an advocate for her,” said Villarreal, who also sits on the AIBA Technical and Rules Commission. “We want to get people in the sport. … If they would make an exception, I would be thrilled. I feel bad for the young lady.”
At 5 feet 1 inch and 106 pounds, Zafar of Oakdale looks too petite to be in the ring dodging and throwing punches. But she developed a fierce passion for boxing after watching a fencing match with her dad two years ago. He suggested that fencing would be a good sport for her.
“I said, ‘No. I don’t like the idea of having someone shove a metal thing in my face. I’ll try boxing before I fence,’ ” she joked.
But the joke quickly became a serious matter to Zafar. She studied online boxing videos and tutorials before she found a boxing gym and coaches.
She remembers the first time she stepped into the ring at Sir Cerresso Fort Boxing and Fitness in St. Paul to spar with a boy who was younger but bigger. She wore her hijab under her headgear. Long sleeves and pants covered her arms and legs. The boys alongside the ring paid no attention to the idea that she was Muslim. All they saw was that she was a girl.
“Obviously, they’ve never seen a girl boxer,” Zafar said. “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.’ ” When the sparring ended, Zafar went up to the boy and his friends and scored the final jab: “I might be a girl, but you hit like a girl.”
“Now they’re my team,” she said, pointing out that they work out together, pushing one another to be better.
And along the way, Zafar has grown from a timid 13-year-old who seemed to shrink to keep from being noticed to a powerful, confident, strong 15-year-old, said her mom, Sarah O’Keefe.
Zafar said boxing changed her. She stands up for herself, and sometimes for her little brother. “Just because I’m small, doesn’t mean I can’t kick your butt,” she said.
That confidence and willingness to fight makes her determined to seek the change she needs to be allowed in a USA Boxing event while staying true to the practice of her religion.
”The goal is not to have an advantage,” said O’Keefe, “but to have access.”
CAIR, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, has taken up her fight.
“Discriminatory international rules do not trump constitutional rights to religious freedom and religious accommodation,” CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
“There’s no practical objection that’s been raised that can’t be dealt with in a reasonable way to allow her to wear her modest attire,” he said.
But boxing officials say the rule requiring a sleeveless jersey and shorts is about safety.
“If a boxer had an injury and they’re fully covered, how would we be able to detect if they had a shoulder out of joint or brace around their elbow because of injuries,” Villarreal said. “If I start deviating from the rules, then I’m going to have 30,000 different athletes calling because now they want to wear their trunks below their knees or they want to wear socks up to their thighs,” he said. “I’m not questioning this family’s [motives], but it opens up the door for everybody else that’s not valid.”
The rules are the rules, said Mike Martino, USA Boxing executive director. “We understand the sensitivity of this issue she has,” he said. “But we have 198 countries, and all the Middle East countries follow the rules. … The United States, because of our legal system, she has recourses that other countries don’t, and we have rights. But when you’re talking about worldwide sports, there’s not going to be an exception.”
Villarreal said he isn’t aware of a woman appealing the uniform requirements. “And I don’t see it changing,” he said. “But anything is possible.”
“We encourage her to continue boxing,” he said. “I wish her well and anyone else who is brave enough to put on a set of gloves and headgear and get in that ring. Obviously, she’s a special lady.”
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788