Imagine combining your passion with your work, and then having to hide it all. Hide it from those closest to you; your family and friends in fear of how they would react to what makes you tick.
Welcome to the world of, Ruqsana Begum, a female British Muslim who had to hide her involvement in kickboxing for five years:
“I kept the sport hidden for five years when I began, simply because I was afraid of how my family would react to how I was taking up a sport that was male dominated”.
Ruqsana took up the sport at the age of 17 whilst living in London with her family in a Muslim household. The kickboxer says how her religion and ethnicity was not a barrier to get involved with the sport, rather that male dominance was the problem – the main fear Ruqsana had in telling her family about her life as a fighter.
Financing a sport at such a young age is more often than not the responsibility of the parents, however, due to this double life that Ruqsana was leading, she had little option but to fund her training and gym hours from her own pocket:
“I would save up my pocket money and travel money to make sure I could attend my training sessions, so I would actually skip lunch and meals so I would have enough money to go to the gym”.
This hidden double life that Ruqsana was living was constricted by the lack of diversity in the sport. Trying to follow your dream yet hiding behind a curtain was never going to lead to a successful involvement for Ruqsana in kickboxing.
Such was the realisation, and such was the natural need for the support closest to you, Ruqsana decided to show where her dreams were – in the ring, as a kickboxer; the Fighter:
“Five years later, I brought them [Ruqsana’s family] down to the gym to show them what I was doing in my spare time because if I wanted to take the sport further, I needed their blessing”.
The traditional values on the other side of Ruqsana’s life could finally be integrated into her passion. She then began to use her traditional values of faith and religion as her motivator, her reason to include discipline and succeed in the sport; achievements which have seen her win Sports Personality of the Year at the Asian Achievers Awards in 2013, as well as becoming the first British Muslim woman World Kickboxing Association Champion in 2016:
“You need to have a strong sense of character and will power, and this is where my faith came in; for me, this was the crucial part of my journey.”
Ruqsana also believed that studying kickboxing under a female coach would break down barriers, and help those close to her come to terms with the sport. However, she didn’t have such an option when beginning kickboxing, so she decided to train as a coach herself, to encourage those that were feeling the same barriers were restricting them to take part.
“I knew it would make a difference to these young females who want to build their confidence and take up a new skill; integrate them into society and to prevent radicalisation of Muslim women… the sport shouldn’t just be for a certain type of person in society.”
Ruqsana now offers free classes to those wanting to get involved in kickboxing in London, as well as ladies-only classes on a Sunday – all on top of her six training sessions a week.
Having competed at the World Amateur Kickboxing Championship in Thailand, 2009, Ruqsana realised how other nations, such as Morocco, appeared far more diverse than the British set-up, as there were a considerable more amount of women kickboxers than the British team.
Such was the difference in numbers, Ruqsana became more motivated to encourage wider parts of society in Britain to take up kickboxing. Ruqsana then launched her own hijab sportswear line to utilise the piece of clothing as a form of symbolism; a move to try and give further confidence to those wishing to involve themselves in the combat sport.
The 33-year-old’s endless work in spreading its participation has seen kickboxing rise dramatically to thousands of women participants when there were only 70 registered female kickboxers in 2005. The first British woman Muslim to win an international title, the Fighter has no doubt changed the sport for the better and given the inspiration for thousands in the combat world.