This weekend, 16-year-old Amaiya Zafar will box in her first competitive match in Minnesota. After three-and-a-half years of focused training, Zafar was granted a religious exemption last week by national governing body USA Boxing to compete wearing a hijab.
In November, Zafar traveled from Minnesota to Florida for what was intended to be her competitive boxing debut, but the match was over before it began when officials gave her an ultimatum: remove the hijab or forfeit.
Zafar refused, and her 15-year-old opponent, Aliyah Charbonier, was declared the winner. In a show of solidarity, Charbonier then presented Zafar with the prize belt. “They didn't give her a chance to fight,” Charbonier told MPR News. “It wasn't right.”
"[Charbonier] giving [the belt] to me — it showed that what happened wasn't fair, and we're not going to let it slide, together, as girls in sport," said Zafar.
Traditionally, USA Boxing has mandated a uniform for all athletes consisting of a sleeveless jersey and shorts that do not come past the knee. Zafar’s modified uniform includes long sleeves and leggings, as well as the hijab.
In 2015, USA Boxing’s then-executive director Michael Martino sited safety as the reason behind the uniform policy, telling Minnesota Public Radio, “If you're covering up arms, if you're covering up legs, could there be preexisting injury? And then if someone got hurt during the event, the referee wouldn't be able to see it."
However, according to Zafar, boxers routinely wear long sleeves, pants and even hats in training in an effort to make weight. Further, there was never a reason given why she could not wear a hijab.
In an email to NPR, USA Boxing said it is "in the process of amending our domestic competition rules specifically to accommodate the clothing and grooming mandates of our boxers' religions.”
The organization expects to implement a permanent policy in June. In the meantime, USA Boxing will consider requests for exemption on a case-by-case basis.
Beyond USA Boxing, Zafar has hopes that boxing’s international governing body, AIBA, will relax its rules, allowing her to compete in the 2020 Olympics. She said, "I think that they don't lose anything. I feel like they gain something by letting me [compete], because it's making the sport more inclusive."
Zafar is confident that the rules will change eventually, and the slow process hasn’t dampered her ambition. "Even if I don't get to compete in the next Olympics,” she said, “I'm still young enough to compete in the one after that, and the one after that.”
“But,” she told MPR News, “if I don't get a chance to compete, the little girls that I'm coaching right now — they'll get a chance."