Girls Are Now Throwing Punches in Pakistan’s First All-Female Boxing Club

The coaches enforce an important rule—if the girls want to box, they must stay in school.
Dec 11, 2015·
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

The country ranked as the least gender equitable in the Asia and Pacific region by the World Economic Forum might seem an unlikely place to start a boxing club for young girls. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Lyari, a poor neighborhood in Karachi, Pakistan, with a reputation for gang violence and producing major sports stars. Thirteen girls have formed the country’s first all-female boxing club, proof that while women’s rights in Pakistan may still have a long way to go, some progress is beginning to take shape.

(Photo: Instagram)

As Sanam Maher, a Karachi-based journalist, reports, it all started in 2013, when a 16-year-old girl, Khadijah, a resident of Lyari, asked an Olympic boxing champion, also a resident, to teach her to box. At the time, there were no opportunities in the country for women to either train or compete as boxers.

“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,” the Sindh Boxing Association Secretary told Maher.

Maher asked him why.

“This is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” the man said, shrugging.

Lyari’s Olympic boxing champ, Syed Hussain Shah, took Khadijah to see his coach, Younis Qambrani. They learned Qambrani had been training his own daughters to box since they were young. The coach agreed to begin training Khadijah, and word began to spread in the neighborhood that girls were being trained to box in Qambrani’s home. Before long, he had more than a dozen young girls asking for training. That’s when Qambrani realized he needed to form an official program and find a space, but he knew it wouldn’t be easy.

When women attempt to play sports in Pakistan, there can be trouble. In October, several female students were attacked at Karachi University for participating in a pickup game of cricket. Several days earlier, the conservative student group accused of attacking the female students had warned them not to play cricket.

“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,” Qambrani’s brother, Hussain, who serves as the new boxing club’s president, said. “We wanted to make sure we account for this culture and don’t give such people something to complain about.”

As such, Hussain chose an enclosed space in a building under construction for the girls to train, noting that “for parents who feel scared about their girls coming here, these four walls serve as pardah [a veil] to outsiders.”

The trainers also serve as mentors to the girls, enforcing the most important rule—if they want to continue to box, they must stay in school.

As the new club works to secure funds and equipment and schedule competitions, the coaches say they have noticed changes in the girls.

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“If you had come here just a week ago, the girls would have been too shy to speak to you,” said Hussain. “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.”

“Some of my own relatives have even said we are mad for wanting to do this,” said Anam, a 17-year-old participant. “We all want to go on to international levels and fight, but I realized that if we keep listening to what people have to say about us, we’ll never make it.”

The next level, the coaches said, is for the girls to experience a fight inside a real, official ring.

“We want to strengthen both the mind and body,” said Hussain. “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.”

But the entire experience has already given the girls strength, both inside and outside the ring. When Maher asked the girls about marriage and what they would say if a future husband didn’t want them to box, they didn’t hesitate.

“I just won’t get married until I’m competing on an international level,” Anam said.

All the girls nodded.

Then 16-year old Azmeena piped up. “How can someone have the guts to tell us we cannot do something when our own fathers have given us permission to do so?” she asked.