"You're like a mini Mike Tyson — phenomenal!"
East London boxer Athena Bashar is amused and proud of the praise she received after her win at the Jersey Leonis Cup in 2021. The young athlete turned women's boxing coach took up the sport when she was 14. She'd never pulled a punch in her life but a quest to get fit led to a hobby that kick-started a new regime.
"I don't think they'd seen someone wear the hijab before, let alone a hijabi boxer", she explains, "I had to travel up to Jersey as a member of the Kent team, rather than with my usual coach and I didn't see any diversity at the whole tournament. But that's what's so great about being a boxer, changing perception. In London, I meet a lot of Muslim women who want to try boxing the only thing stopping them are the barriers — barriers that I'm helping to break."
Before she went into her first bout, Athena had her own battles to overcome: "It was such a hard journey. Firstly, there were no female fighters in my gym, let alone any other Bangladeshi women or any wearing the hijab. But from the moment I told my coach I wanted to fight, everything changed. I started dieting and training two times a day for eight months to prove my determination. Then the training turned into boot camp. I was up at 6am for a run before school. At 4pm I'd do boxing, strength training and conditioning until 8pm, six days a week. On my cheat day, I could finally have curry and rice — that's how strict the regime was!"
Rolling with the punches paid off; Athena went on to compete in amateur boxing and Muay Thai. Today, she's the head women's boxing coach at Newham-based youth club and charity Fight For Peace, the same space where she first encountered the sport. She also runs a weekly boxing club for women at Diesel Gym in the Royal Docks, free sessions that are funded by social enterprise SCK Fitness which is committed to making combat sports and martial arts accessible to all. And that's where I meet her for my own knock-out class.
"I used to be a couch potato, but now I love coming here"
It's Saturday night, the only time men are barred from the building. The changing room is filled with warm chatter while the gym starts to fill up with women of all ages.
Don't be fooled. There are no concessions for being a women-only class. 90-minutes of solid training awaits. With what feels like a never-ending warm-up, we run while giving each other piggyback rides, clamber across the floor in wheelbarrow fashion and do bodyweight calisthenics. This is followed by punches and sparring techniques before sprinting to end the session. I'm shattered long before I finally throw my towel in the ring. But I take comfort from my classmates.
Farah has been coming to the sessions since they started. For her, the appeal lies in learning a skill to feel safer. "I want to get to the point where I can defend myself," she says, "I'm not interested in professional fighting. I feel as a female in London, being out late at night you need to be fit and you need to know how to protect yourself — these boxing classes are helping me do that.
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"I used to be a couch potato, but now I love coming here. Everything from the skipping to the sparring has made me feel 100% more confident."
Fahima, one of the Somali women who regularly comes to the classes, found them through word-of-mouth and has since encouraged other women to join up: "For years I've been trying to find female-only boxing," she says, "Muslim women love sports as much as anyone else. We do it when we're kids but when we're adults there aren't as many avenues. The female environment is important because we can exercise properly and we understand each other's struggles. It's like we're fighting each other's corner.
"I come with my sister and cousin, she told a uni friend who brought a colleague — I'm telling everyone I know!"
"I had always seen women express their desire to be able to train without men being around"
The women-only boxing sessions started after the founders of SCK Fitness realised there was a need to engage more Somali people in Newham with fitness. It grew into a service for the community across East London and soon attracted members from other backgrounds too. Though originally aimed at anyone, they soon identified a need for a safe space just for women to get fit.
Co-Founder Liban explains: "From day one we received massive interest from women of all ages who wanted access to boxing and martial arts classes. I had always seen through social media women express their desire to be able to train in gyms/classes without men being around. I knew this was a necessary preference for women who practice Islam but not for women of other faiths or cultures.
"We're trying to bridge the gap as a social enterprise with the mission of democratising access to fitness and martial arts classes. That bridge is being built, but it's not for one demographic. We care about serving any women in the community who are suffering because society isn't encouraging them to engage in sports and fitness by not providing enough facilities."
"For the first two years of fighting, I struggled wearing a hijab as my hair would go everywhere"
Having a safe space is one of the barriers that Athena identified too, but there are others including cost and sportswear: "I want to break the stereotype that Muslim stay at home," says Athena, "That's not who we are. It's the barriers that stop us from fulfilling our potential. Women travel from all over London to join us, from north, west and south because there's nothing else like it. There are women's boxing gyms with high membership fees but our sessions are free and everyone is welcome, regardless of their background. Being in a space where you can feel comfortable is a priority.
"I never felt comfortable fighting men, but I had no choice because there were no women to train with. Then for the first two years of fighting, I struggled wearing a hijab as my hair would go everywhere. But then I was approached to be an ambassador for a sports brand who make modest sportswear and it changed my performance because I could give it 110% without worrying about my fixing my hijab."
Incredibly, it's only since 2019 that the ban was lifted on women wearing the hijab in boxing. "I wouldn't fight if I couldn't wear it," says Athena. "The more we do to make sports more accessible to the whole community, the better it is for everyone." Her mum is her biggest supporter, coming to all the fights. "In the beginning, my parents didn't like to see me coming home bleeding or with a bent nose but I needed to do this and they support that."
SCK Fitness' weekly classes at Diesel Gym attract participants from a variety of backgrounds including North African, South Asian and Eastern European and it’s going from strength-to-strength. Says co-founder Liban: "We want women who feel left out, marginalised and underserved due to their cultural/religious background to feel included in the health-conscious world we live in today.
"Our attendees feel this too, so ultimately we use that as our evaluation of success."
Adds Athena: "When I started female-only classes my life changed for the better and I want to share that. Some people have said to me they'll come to boxing when they're fit. Then they stress at home wondering how to work out. I say no, don't think like that, come to the class and you’ll get fit there. One session a week is just the start.
"My dream is to run a women's only gym so that all women can have somewhere to go to get healthy and fit whenever they want, and feel the freedom of no barriers to stop them."
The drop-in women's boxing run by Athena and SCK Fitness take place Saturdays 7pm-8.30pm at Diesel Gym, 1012 Dockside Road. Any woman can join.
Find out more at on Instagram/Twitter @SCKFitnessTeam