This is certainly not the first story we’ve shared that pairs boxing gloves with female empowerment. There are women all over the world who are stepping in the ring in order to trounce more than just their opponent. You may be familiar with Indian woman Mary Kom, the Olympic boxing champion who started a boxing club for women in her community to teach them how to defend themselves against violence, a threat that is highly prominent in India.
In Nairobi, Kenya, a group called the Boxgirls formed in 2008 to help women and girls fight back against rape. So far the program has managed to empower 1200 girls in the city and transform the way some think about women’s sexuality, according to a report on Broadly.
We also shared the story of Dubai-based Gheeda Chamasaddine, aka “Joelle Hunter”, who has become the first female wrestler in the Arab world. These women are breaking societal gender boundaries and paving new pathways for women and girls in their countries to follow.
In Pakistan, a group of eager young women are also getting in the ring and taking part in the action, in a way that is giving gender stereotypes the (well-gloved) middle finger. A group called the First Women Boxing Coaching Camp has been organized by the Sindh Boxing Association (SBA) in the city of Karachi, making them the first official training program in the country to train women how to box.
An feature on the ground-breaking new club on Women In The World says the city of Karachi is know for 2 things: gang violence and sports stars, and certainly not female ones. So it only makes sense that this would be the foundation of something that is set to change the way the country looks at women in sports forever.
The Women Boxing Coaching Camp began in 2013 after a teen girl approached boxing champion Nadir Kachi and asked him to train her. She couldn’t find any other club that was willing to train her, because there are no professional boxing leagues for women in the country. The 16 year old girl, Khadijah, was taken to Nadir’s coach Younis Qambrani who agreed to take her on. Having two daughters of his own who have been putting on boxing gloves since they were little, as well as a string of other family members who he has trained to become boxing champs, it’s no surprise that he would want to help young Khadijah and eventually, many other girls.
A total of 13 girls showed up asking coach Younis to train them after learning about Khadijah, at which point he realized he needed to create an official program just for them.
“Female boxers or pugilists take part in competitions all over the world, but ever since the Pakistan Boxing Federation was formed in 1948, we have never had a program for women,” explained SBA secretary Asghar Baloch to WITW.
There is cultural stigma against women in sports in general in Pakistan, he explained, so one of the challenges they faced with the new women’s boxing club was how to safeguard the girls against criticism or attacks.
Because of the sensitivities of men interacting with women in the conservative culture of Pakistan, which is known as an Islamic Republic, the organizers are keen to help shift outdated attitudes relating to gender.
“People get brainwashed and get stuck on details such as a male coach teaching a group of girls or what the girls are wearing while they are training. We wanted to make sure we account for this culture and don’t give such people something to complain about,” said Mohammad Hussain Qambrani, the coach’s brother and president of the Pak Shaheen Boxing Club.
The building the girls train in is in a closed off building away from onlookers who might see the unorthodox activity and get suspicious. This way the girls can train and not feel burdened. They are even encouraged to take off their head-covering if they want to, without any consequence.
Unlike other stories where we see women rising amongst a sea of men in male-dominated industries to battle violence, oppression or other extreme circumstances, the boxing coaches in Karachi are mainly agreeing to train these young girls as a way to break generations of gender stereotypes. It is a simple but profound goal in a country where equality is not always seen as a noble achievement or high on the social agenda.
These men want the country to be known for its female athletes as well as male in the future.
“Our goal is very simple. Pakistani male athletes have made our country proud on so many platforms, such as the Olympics, the Commonwealth and Asian Games, and we want our girls to be able to fly our nation’s flag just as high all over the world, said Asghar Baloch.
The club received some funding from the government to purchase equipment for the girls, and there is talk of more female-only clubs opening across the city which means eventually they can form their own boxing leagues to compete in.
The program doesn’t just help girls become champion boxers, it also encourages them in their education as each member is required to stay in school if they want to keep training. Now that’s a good incentive! Along with these aspects, the girls also learn confidence, which some of the coaches say has been one of the most visible signs of a program that is working.
“If you had come here just a week ago, the girls would have been too shy to speak to you. If we ever had visitors, they used to hide behind each other. Now, if they see someone from the media or a visitor to the camp, they come forward to speak to him or her,” said Hussain Qambrani.
“We want to strengthen both the mind and body. If you do not train both, it won’t matter how strong the girl’s body is — she’ll be knocked out in the first punch,” he added.
One of the girls, Anam, is considered the star fighter of the camp and the coaches see her going on to becoming a coach herself when she is not fighting. Her relatives initially thought she was crazy for wanting to get involved with boxing and wanting to get to the international level of other professionals.
“I realized that if we keep listening to what people have to say about us, we’ll never make it,” she said, adding how she hopes her presence in the ring will encourage other girls to do the same and break down any negative stigma in parents’ minds.
Nadir Kachi still helps out coaching the girls today, after being approached by Khadijah in 2013, and fully believes in their talent, saying they should not be underestimated simply because they are female.
“Boys have two arms and legs and so do girls. So why wouldn’t these girls fight just like boys? If they beat me today, then tomorrow, God willing, they’ll beat others,” he said.
It is certainly encouraging to hear 18 year old Nadir’s more liberal opinions on women in his country, which we hope is a sign that the next generation of Pakistani men are willing to be more open minded when it comes to the roles women “should” play in society as they grow up.
“The women of our families leave their homes when they get married only to go to someone else’s home and work there, scrubbing floors and keeping the house clean. Is this what we are raising girls for? So they can go to someone’s house and become a maasi (maid)? Why not let the girls come here and train and make something of themselves?” he asked. Preach it loud and far, brother!
In a country where a good marriage is seen as the ultimate pinnacle of achievement for women where equality is not, these 13 girls are challenging these limited notions of what women can do and what they should aspire to. When asked what would happen if any of their potential husbands were to frown on the fact that they are boxing, Anam has the perfect response ready.
“I just won’t get married until I’m competing on an international level,” she said.
“How can someone have the guts to tell us we cannot do something when our own fathers have given us permission to do so?” added fellow boxer Azmeena.
It seems sports in Pakistan has become a new avenue for the younger generation of women to tangibly reach for gender equality in a way like never before. In 2013, 25 year old Samina Baig became the first Pakistani woman to summit Mt. Everest. As she stood on the peak reflecting on her massive achievement, she recognized that it was not hers alone, but significant for the rest of the women in her country.
“I was representing Pakistani women. I was thinking that if I don’t make it, how am I going to encourage other women? I had to do it,” she told the LA Times.
She is one of less than 4o0 women from around the globe to achieve this literal and figurative sporting height, and today she has private sponsor who fund her climbing expeditions all over the world. Samina has a powerful message for all the young girls in Pakistan who seek a better life.
“I want to tell the women in Pakistan that if I am from Pakistan and I can climb mountains, they can climb their own mountains, because everyone has their own mountains in their lives. They can work hard, they can overcome their challenges and they can reach their goals,” she said.
She completed the Everest climb with her older brother Mirza Ali Baig, who like Nadir Kachi from the Karachi women’s boxing club, is adamant that equality is something that needs to be spread in Pakistani society.
“[Our climb] not just for pleasure. Behind our story is a story of equality, a relationship between brother and sister, and a relationship between men and women on equal grounds,” he said.
Now together the two often talk to people around the world about women in Pakistan, hoping to dispel myths and share a new, empowered perspective of what they are achieving away from the oppressed rhetoric that dominates news headlines in relation to the country.
“For those who think that women in Pakistan are always oppressed, that they don’t have opportunity … [Samina] is just one example,” said Mirza.
In 2013 the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif awarded Samina $24,000 in acknowledgement of her Everest climb and hailed her sporting abilities as a win for women in a press release.
“Her achievements are a beacon of light, encouraging the young women of Pakistan to reach out and fulfill their dreams and aspirations,” said the Prime Minister.
If Samina’s Mt. Everest climb was the forerunner, it seems the girls in the Karachi Women’s Boxing Club are the current bearers of the torch of female empowerment for the next generation, who will hopefully continue breaking down barriers and show the world that being a woman or a girl is no hindrance to achievement or success.