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How One British-Muslim Woman Fought To Become a Thai Boxing Champion

Ruqsana Begum

Ruqsana Begum attended her first kickboxing class when she was 17 and fell in love with the sport - but there was one problem - she knew her strict Muslim family would never approve.

Feeling torn between her family values and her passion for sport, Begum began a journey of self-discovery that would take her from the lowest point in her life to the highest - being crowned Muay Thai world champion.

Growing Up In a Traditional Bengali Community
Begum grew up in East London, a predominantly Bangladeshi neighborhood where traditional culture and religious values are paramount.

Being a ‘good daughter’ was her priority and she did everything her parent’s expected of her including going to Arabic classes, dressing modestly and helping her mother with the housework.

Begum was allowed to practice sports and play in the park when she was a child but that all changed once she hit puberty and her parents’ no longer allowed her to spend time with friends outside of school.

“I just accepted that this was their belief: that you’re a young woman now, you should learn how to cook, help your mother at home, so that is what I did,” she told the Independent.

Begum followed all her parents’ rules stringently, never questioning whether she was happy. This all changed when she saw an advert for a kickboxing class at her college and her passion for sports came crashing back into her life. Of course Begum couldn’t tell anyone that she was going to a mixed gym class, so instead she told her mother that she would be out shopping.

“I just loved it,” she said about her first lesson. “They didn’t teach you much, just jab, cross. But I knew I wanted to do more.”

Although her college couldn’t afford to provide more classes, the instructor gave Begum the address of a gym where she could train, just 10-minutes from her house. This signaled the start of Begum’s double life; obedient daughter at home, kick-ass athlete at the gym.

Training with The Best
Begum began training at the KO Gym, one of the most famous boxing gyms in London where she met her trainer, Bill Judd. “Bill saw something in me,” Begum said. “I was determined to learn and absorb everything he was teaching.”

Although Begum knew her family would never allow her to train at a boxing gym wearing tight clothes and surrounded by men, she found ways to get out of the house.

“I would wake up extra early on a Sunday morning, help my mum with the cooking, make sure I’d hoovered the house, done all the chores so she was pleased with me and in a good mood, and then I’d politely ask, ‘Mum, can I go to the gym?’ And she would say, ‘OK, you can go for an hour, seeing as you’ve done everything else,’” Begum explained.

Helping her mother at home and being a good daughter meant that Begum didn’t feel bad about hiding her passion.

“I didn’t care about going out with my friends, or wearing fancy clothes,” she said. “I didn’t want to stay out late. All I wanted was to go to the gym for that hour, so I would make sure I was on my best behaviour for the rest of the week.”

As Begum became older and began her final year studying Architectural Engineering at university, her parents sprang some unexpected news on her - she was going to have an arranged marriage.

Suffocating In Her New Life
Although Begum thought it was too early for her to get married, her parents insisted and at 22 she moved in with her in laws.

“If my father-in-law wanted tea I would have to be the one to make it. If they had guests I would have to be happy and cheery and do the snacks and the food. And if they stayed late, I’d have to stay up and help with the washing-up, even though I had work the next day,” she explained.

Married life began to take a toll on her mental health and on top of it all, she could no longer pursue her passion.

“I was trying to please everyone,” she said. “I remember going to work on a Monday feeling more tired than I had done on the Friday. It came to the point where I couldn’t keep it up any more.”

It wasn’t long before Begum suffered a severe panic attack and collapsed on the kitchen floor.

Her doctor advised her to move back in with her parents and soon after, her husband filed for a divorce.

Rather than lose hope, Begum felt relieved that the divorce wasn’t her fault and that she hadn't done anything to let her family down.

“They couldn’t fault me on anything,” she explained. “I never raised my voice at my in-laws, I never swore, they knew I couldn’t have done any more. And when they realised what the other family were like, and what I was going through, they felt very upset and sad for me.”

Finding Happiness Again Through Thai Boxing
Although Begum was going through a divorce and had also just lost her job, her experience gave her the confidence to open up to her parents about her love of boxing and she decided to take her father to the gym to show him what Muay Thai was all about.

“We turned a corner on that day I took him the gym,’ she said. “I didn’t have to live a double life any more.”

After re-starting her training, Begum quickly rose up in the ranks and defied expectations of being both a woman and Muslim to become British champion in 2011. Rather than scorn her for practicing sport, the Bangladeshi community praised her achievements and viewed her as a role-model for the younger generation.

“I am very happy and proud of myself,” she said. “Quite often I’ve forgotten to give myself a pat on the back for what I’ve achieved and what I’ve had to overcome.”

By winning the world championship this year, Begum has proved that being Muslim and being a sportswoman aren't mutually exclusive and that Muslim women are as capable as anyone to achieve greatness.

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