Amaiya Zafar of Oakdale is a skinny 15-year-old girl who packs a mean punch. For two years she's trained and sparred with the guys at boxing gyms across the Twin Cities, but she's never been able to compete.
That's because as a practicing Muslim, Amaiya wears a sport hijab and long-sleeved Under Armour when she fights. USA Boxing, the governing body for Olympic-style amateur boxing, considers her religious attire a safety hazard. The organization argued that referees wouldn't be able to see Amaiya's injuries if she takes a particularly nasty blow.
However, Amaiya and her parents are willing to take the risk. They point out that the places where fighters are normally hit — the torso and stomach — are already covered in amateur boxing, as no one is forced to fight in bikinis.
The Zafars have lobbied USA Boxing to change its rules. With pressure from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which claimed religious discrimination, the boxing authority agreed to ask its higher-ups at the International Boxing Association in Switzerland for a waiver.
That was months ago. The Zafars haven't received any follow-up from either the International Boxing Association or USA Boxing. CAIR is considering taking legal action.
But in order to file suit, Amaiya has to be denied the right to fight first. She's traveled to the Golden Gloves competition in Duluth and Silver Gloves in Minneapolis this past Saturday, but because there weren't enough female fighters in her weight and class, she's never found a good matchup.
"We were kind of bummed out that no girls signed up, but that's okay," says Mohammad Zafar, Amaiya's father. "She went and supported her teammates."
Mohammad says his daughter's fascination with boxing started when she was 13. One night the two of them were watching a fencing match when he made an offhand comment about how she should try it. Amaiya replied that she'd rather get punched in the face than get stabbed with a piece of metal.
"I was like okay, maybe we can work with that," Mohammad says. He took Amaiya to her first gym, and she fell in love with the sport. The effect boxing has had on her all but makes up for the struggle to get her into a competition and the hateful comments on news stories, he says.
"Her mind just woke up in ways," Mohammad says. "Raising a teenager with all these crazy things going on, my wife and I were always worried for her safety. With boxing, you have to confidently look at your opponent. Predators don’t like that, they don’t like women staring them in the eye. I’m still her father and I’ll protect her until the day I die but I think her own confidence, her own personality, her own social identity, it really makes me happy."
CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper says that although Amaiya wasn't able to fight at Silver Gloves over the weekend, civil rights advocates will continue to accompany her to tournaments in Minnesota and beyond until she is either accepted in the ring or denied outright.