International Women's Day: How Teenage Boxer Amaiya Zafar Has Already Made Her Mark in Boxing

Amaiya Zafar is uprooting the boxing world one punch at a time.

The 18-year-old fighter from Minnesota first took up boxing when she was 13, after her father suggested that she practice fencing. But Zafar quipped back and told her father that she would rather be “punched” than fence — so he held her to it.

“I started watching videos,” Zafar tells PEOPLE. “Then he took me to a real boxing gym and that’s when I fell in love. Boxing really raised me. I grew up in the gym.”

But as she learned the sport and began competing, Zafar — a devout Muslim — soon ran into adversity when she was warned by boxing officials that she couldn’t wear her full-body uniform and hijab in the ring as female boxing attire typically only allows a fighter to wear trunks and a jersey.

Then, in November 2016, in what would be one of the most important matches in her fledgling career, Zafar made headlines when she was disqualified from a national championship fight when officials deemed her hijab, long-sleeve shirt and pants would be unsafe in the fight. In a show of compassion and understanding, Zafar’s opponent gave her the championship belt after officials made their decision.

“That moment I will never forget. I just cried, hysterically, because it was the first time that I felt that type of solidarity,” recalls Zafar, who trains out of Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis. “I had been having people tell me for like a year that I wouldn’t be able to ever fight, you know? Up until that point, I never had actually been disqualified. I just had people saying like, ‘Don’t even try it.’ “

Being able to wear her hijab and full-body uniform isn’t just about her hoping to make a fashion statement, Zafar says. It’s about something far more important.

“As a Muslim woman, I wear hijabs because it represents me as a Muslim and it represents me as who I am,” she says. “If I were to walk down the street now in my own neighborhood, people know who I am. But, if I were to walk down the street without my hijab, they would be like, ‘Who’s that?’ It’s who I am… it’s a big part of my identity.”

Thanks to her unwillingness to bend to the norms, Zafar helped to push USA Boxing into giving her a religious exception to wear her hijab in 2017. Then, this February, the International Boxing Association lifted the ban on female fighters wearing hijabs “should they want due to religious reasons.”

“I was shocked,” Zafar said of the ruling. “I had people telling me, ‘It will never change.’ I had people close to me saying, ‘You’re wasting your time. It’s not going to change.’ But I had my coaches telling me, ‘It just takes one. If you want this, keep working because it just takes one.’ “

Since USA Boxing gave her the exception, Zafar has won the women’s flyweight title at the 2018 Sugar Bert National Boxing Championship in Orlando, Florida, and a Ringside World Championship in Kansas City, Missouri.

Now Zafar is training for the upcoming Golden Gloves tournament on March 30. Though her story is far from finished, she hopes people can look to her as an example of living life your own way.

“Don’t let people dictate how you live your life,” she says. “If you stand true to something, it will change. Just like my coaches told me, ‘It just takes one.’ As long as you don’t let people tell you how to live your life and you just do things for yourself, then you’ll be all right.”

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