In part two of the Kadeem Simmonds' interview with RUQSANA BEGUM, the British Muslim Muay Thai kickboxing champion talks about being a part-time teacher and why her sports hijab is key to get young Muslim girls involved in sport
BEING a woman involved in sport is difficult. You don’t get much recognition — not that that is the motivation for taking part — and the pay is ludicrously low. Young girls aspiring to be an athlete don’t have many role models to look up to, something that Ruqsana Begum discovered at a young age.
Today, the problem isn’t as bad as it was 20 years ago. The success of the England national football team at the Women’s World Cup has thrown women’s sport to the fore and girls now have a larger pool of idols then ever before.
As I speak to Begum, it becomes clear that she should be mentioned in the same conversations as star players Toni Duggan and Steph Houghton.
Female athletes who have fought tooth and nail to get to where they are today. Their stories are more inspiring than the ones we read on the back pages about the latest overpaid English wonderkid in the Premier League.
For young girls getting into sport, especially football, they have a host of new athletes to emulate. But for anyone looking to become a fighter, the list of names is shorter than the number of minutes I would last in the ring against Begum.
She admitted that when growing up, fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee were here only viable role models as there wasn’t a Nicola Adams or Michaela Walsh to look up to. The women Begum looked up to were athletics stars, which is a world away from Muay Thai kickboxing — the career she wanted to persue.
“Things have changed dramatically,” she told me. “When I first started, there wasn’t as many women in the sport.
“I had no women role models because I didn’t know any women fighters or athletes that I could really look up to or inspired me. I remember watching athletics growing up, someone like Denise Lewis I really admired but that was later on.
“You look at women’s football, people are slowly knowing their names but it shouldn’t just be one or two sports.
“It should be across the board. Changes need to come in and hopefully with the media supporting women’s sport, it will make a difference.”
One fighter grabbing headlines is Ronda Rousey. The mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter is undefeated in the octagon and gained a lot of attention for calling out undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather in response to his convictions for physical abuse of women.
Begum feels that her popularity can only enhance women’s sport. Though she admits that her Muay Thai is still a long way away from getting the recognition it warrants.
“The sport in general doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. For example, boxing now has a platform, especially for women. It is only recently that female boxing was introduced to the Olympics but prior to that, there was nothing.
“Nicola Adams wouldn’t have had that opportunity to become a gold medalist. Our sport doesn’t get that platform or recognition, yet we train harder than other sports. It is frustrating.
“Globally, martial arts is a big sport but in England it is not mainstream. Yet you have taekwondo in the Olympics and judo.
“I don’t understand why Thai boxing isn’t introduced [to the Olympics] but I hope that things are changing and that we can move forward, in terms of promoting women athletes in sport and empowering women in general. In the United States MMA is a massive sport, such a big attraction. Rounda Rousey went into MMA from judo and look where she is now.”
Not only does women’s sports not get the attention it deserves, the low wages mean that it isn’t a viable career option for supporting yourself as an individual, let alone a family. Muay Thai is just one of many sports that, if you are a woman, a second job is a must if you want to survive.
When Begum isn’t dominating in the ring, she spends her time working with kids in a local school.
“I am a science technician, part-time, at Swanlea School as well as personal trainer, Thai boxing and boxing coach. It is difficult to balance the time as I want to give this priority.
“I want to be able to train full-time, concentrate on fighting and representing my country rather than being distracted by other things.”
Up until now, our conversation had been quite a positive one. Begum hadn’t had many overt obstacles in her path to get to where she is today, which is quite remarkable given her gender and religion.
But funnily enough, it is in her role as a teacher where she has found the most barriers. It wasn’t always the case. A change of headmistress made it hard to get the required time to train and fight, she explains.
“Initially the school were quite supportive but they are becoming really strict in terms of giving me time off prior to fights.
“I haven’t always been given the time required in order to train before a fight but I don’t let it affect my work because I know that for two days I work and the rest I train.
“I can’t afford for it to distract my work and to lose my job but I do ask if I can have some time off because I need to train six weeks prior to a fight and on the last occasion I was refused the time. I had to appeal that decision.
“I remember my headmistress telling me that it wasn’t special circumstances. A local MP wrote in, the school governors got involved and they all supported my case. The governors gave me 12 days and the headmistress decided to give me five and a half.
“She said because I work part-time she was going to make this pro rata and tried to make it as difficult as possible. She told me that: ‘the kids were a priority’ and I said: ‘I am a role model to them. If they don’t have a role model then who can they look up to?’”
The interview winds down as more and more people walk in for the next Muay Thai class at the gym. But before I leave, there is a question I have to ask.
When I first arrived and started talking to Begum, we were interrupted by one of the trainers at the gym. He handed her a package delivered from Pakistan which had since been sitting on the table for around an hour, like an elephant in the room.
It is a huge part of the reason why I was so desperate to talk to Begum. Back in 2012, during the Olympics, she came up with the idea to create a sports hijab to help enable Muslim women to compete in sport.
It is astonishing that in 2015, and even back in 2012, that this isn’t something you can pick up from any sports store given the large Muslim community in Britain. But Begum hopes that things soon change.
“I designed it to increase participation of Muslim women in sport and to meet the requirements of health and safety as well as being comfortable.
“You don’t have to worry about safety pins plus it’s breathable. It has plenty of movement and is four-way stretch as well as having high moisture resistance. These are all things we need.
“I know quite a few sisters that want to go out for a jog and they are very conscious of people looking at them and this is one of the things that will make them feel more confident, to just go out while thinking: ‘I look and feel the part,’ while being at ease.
“I remember during the Olympics, especially with Saudi Arabia taking part, I realised that there were Muslim athletes now coming from all over the world to compete in sport.
“There was a Muslim athlete who was not allowed to compete in a tournament because her hijab wasn’t up to scratch with the health and safety requirements. So they appealed against the decision and finally came to the decision that if they had a sports hijab made for her would she be able to compete.
“Nike created a one-off piece in order for her to take part and that is where I got my inspiration from. I thought to myself: ‘That is such a good idea.’
“But while that is there for elite athletes, why isn’t that option there for regular people? And I know in a sport like this, a hijab is needed. You can’t be fidgeting around when you’re punching someone. When you’re getting hit, you can’t be worrying about a safety pin getting loose.”
While she explains to me about how she plans to market the hijab, I can’t help but think how useful this would be to young girls taking part in PE lessons.
Begum had the same idea and the key reason behind this creation was to encourage more Muslim girls to get involved in sport.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking. They make kids change out their PE kit once they are finished because it will be smelly but why are they not taking off their hijab?
“They then go back into the classroom wearing the same hijab they have been running about in. When I train I get sweaty, it’s not comfortable.
“Certain countries, like Iran, are very advanced with their hijabs. But in England, we don’t have anything. We don’t have a British company selling sport hijabs. There is such a big Muslim community, it shows that there is a need for this.”
I could speak to Begum for hours as there are so many topics I want to pick her brain about. But time is up and it is only fair I let her get back to her training.
Before I leave the gym, which by now is packed with the sound of people skipping and unleashing their anger on training pads, I ask her one last question. What is next for Ruqsana Begum?
“As an athlete, I know too well that sport isn’t forever. I need another passion for when I retire. I will find it incredibly hard giving up something that I have been so dedicated to but will need to shift that passion to something else and the hijab is that new thing.
“There are many barriers for Muslim women. If I can just reduce one barrier for them, that would help immensely.
“I hope this can make a difference to young Muslim women and the younger generation coming up.”