RUQSANA BEGUM is a British Muslim Muay Thai Kickboxing champion. In a two-part exclusive interview with the Star, she tells Kadeem Simmonds what it was like hiding her passion from her strict parents
RUQSANA BEGUM isn’t a household name. Muay Thai Kickboxing isn’t a household sport. But the two are slowly being recognised. Begum is the current British Atomweight Muay Thai boxing champion and captain of the Great Britain team.
Yet in a sport dominated by men, Begum stands out not just because of her gender but because of her religion as well.
She is Muslim.
We first met at a workshop for kids interested in sports journalism. I was there as part of a question and answer panel and she was there to be interviewed by those taking part.
After the small session was over, Begum introduced herself to me and after a brief conversation, we agreed to meet again and discuss her career and what it is like to be a Muslim woman and a Muay Thai kickboxer representing her country.
Fast forward a month and I meet Begum at the KO Gym in Bethnal Green, east London, where she trains. As I arrive she offers me the chance to do the interview in a quiet cafe round the corner but I decline.
I wanted to talk to her in her element, the place where she prepares for world title fights and the place she calls home.
Begum shows me around the gym and it is very different to what I expected. A lot of gyms these days are packed, all day everyday, with the latest equipment and hi-tech machines.
But KO gym in the heart of east London still has the looks and feel of an old-fashioned local gym, not a global chain-branded place people go and spend 45 minutes on the treadmill in while checking their Facebook.
There is a young woman sparring as I am quickly shown around. One ring sits opposite the entrance and to the left of the ring are a number of punch bags.
I cannot imagine the hours Begum has spent in this part of the gym, visualising her next opponent as she dances around the bag. Left-hook. Right jab. Practising her footwork. Knees. Teeps (push kicks). Throwing in elbows for good measure. It isn’t a sport for the faint-hearted.
As we begin talking, you can’t help but be distracted by the sound of flesh hitting training pads in the other room, by the cars passing outside and the general sounds of life outside the gym.
But I am soon brought back to my immediate surroundings as Begum tells me about how she first got involved in sport.
“I loved sports when I was growing up, ever since I can remember. In primary school I was good at football, rounders and hockey. I also did track and relay. I was the fastest girl in the whole school and I enjoyed it.”
But the transformation from track to the ring is a huge one. The physicality involved in Muay Thai kickboxing is not something most people would want to feel but for Begum it was a no-brainer, given the athletes and fighters she looked up to as a young Muslim girl in the East End.
“My inspiration came from Bruce Lee,” she recalls. “My uncle used to have his movies and Muhammad Ali on in the background and I think subconsciously I picked that up. I remember ever since I could read, flicking through newspapers and seeing kickboxing adverts, thinking: ‘I want to do this.’
“I always knew my family would not allow me to do it and even if they did, financially it would be very difficult for them because there were five of us and we were just about getting by.
“I knew I couldn’t ask them. But that passion just grew and at 17 there was an after-school kickboxing session at the college I was attending.
“It was a one-off because the funding ran out and afterwards I thought: ‘I love this sport, I can’t just walk away from it.’ “The instructor gave me his card and said to come and train with him here [at KO gym].”
What happened next was an extreme bit of luck for Begum. Little did she know, the establishment was undergoing a major change, one that would affect her to this very day.
“I turned up to his [the instructor’s] gym and he told me he was selling it. I thought: ‘Are you serious?’ I stood there crying and then Bill Judd walked in, he was buying the gym at the time, looked at me and said: ‘You can always come and train here,’ and my first thought was: ‘Oh God, how am I going to afford this?’
“Because at this point it was a proper gym, not like before where the guy knew me from school and told me to come along. But Judd was really good and understood that I was quite young and didn’t have a job.”
Over the next few years, Begum engrossed herself in the sport. Balancing studying and training for many would have been too much. But factor in the fact that she was doing it behind her parents back and it is difficult to imagine the stress the 17-year-old Begum would have been under.
What if her parents found out about her other life? Would they accept it or would they make her give up doing what she loved?
While telling her story, she laughs and smiles but she wasn’t going through those emotions at the time.
“I did the taster session around 17-18, before going on to university,” she says. “Once there, I started training religiously every Sunday at a gym. It was a couple of minutes away from this gym and I did that throughout my university life.
“But I knew I couldn’t tell my parents. There was an occasion where I went home and had a trophy and my father saw me and asked: ‘Why do you walk like a boxer?’ My heart just jumped out.
“I thought to myself: ‘Oh my god he knows. And if he knows now, he might tell me off. He might not let me out to go to the gym.’ So I didn’t tell them and my fears started creeping in and I kept it hidden even more.”
But Begum knew that her second life could not be kept a secret for much longer.
It was only a matter of time before another item from her kickboxing was found or her parents would ask questions that she could only answer by revealing the truth.
Trying to keep her training a secret was hard while growing up in a strict Muslim household but the time had come for her parents to learn about her true passion.
“It was hidden for around five years,” she explains. “My family are very traditional and very religious, especially my father. I didn’t want to contradict that and grew up in a very strict household.
“I am not someone who likes conflict, even though I fight and train.
“I hate confrontation so for me I wanted to keep my family and parents happy. I remember going home from university, being five or 10 minutes late and worried that my mum would be angry.
“She wouldn’t understand that there were train delays or something. So I always tried to keep them satisfied and happy and not go against them and rebel.
“It did have a great impact, especially mentally, and I couldn’t help but think: ‘Am I displeasing them in anyway?’
Eventually, Begum opened up to her parents and admitted what she had been doing when she wasn’t at university.
“After I graduated that’s when I told them. I actually brought them down to the gym. I was going through a bit of dark stage, where I was kind of quite sad, so I said to them: ‘This is where I’m spending my time, at the gym.’
“My coach reassured my parents and I think they realised that there are far worse things that I could be doing than spending my time at the gym. As you can see, this is a real gym.
“It’s not all glamorous, I’m not covered in make-up. People come in, train and go. I think that reassured them.”
For Begum, telling her parents made her life easier. But then came the decision to take the sport to the next level and actually start competing inside a ring.
For most, the decision would be a hard one but for Begum it was extremely difficult. Being both female and Muslim, some thought it wasn’t socially acceptable for her to be partaking in such activities.
However, Begum explains that what she went through is the same thing that happens to British girls.
Girls who are afraid to tell their parents that they want to get into a job which requires you to tap into a primal kill-or-be-killed instinct.
“I didn’t make the decision to start fighting until after I got my parents’ blessing, which was in 2008-9. Prior to that it was quite difficult for me to start fighting due to the fact that I am female and because of my culture.
“I had a lot of inner conflicts in terms of ‘am I going against my culture, my parents, my religion’ and also being a female. Even Western women, they struggle. Some of the girls tell me that their parents don’t want them doing this.
Theirs was on a different level but it is also the same.”
But though her parents knew what she was doing, they didn’t exactly take kindly to the sport she had taken up as a hobby at 17.
“When I brought them to the gym they turned a blind eye,” she tells me. “They knew what I was doing but they didn’t want to say that they were OK with it.
“What they did was they didn’t say anything. They used to pretend they didn’t hear me leaving, so in some senses it was good but at other times I thought: ‘Are they OK with this?’
“But I soon realised that their silence was their approval.”