German boxer fight to wear headscarf in the ring

German boxer fight to wear headscarf in the ring

BERLIN: The fighting spirit of Berlin boxer Zeina Nassar has won her many titles, but her battle to wear the hijab in the ring has also made her an equal opportunity champion.

Today, the 21-year-old, who discovered female boxing when watching videos online as a teenager, is a German amateur featherweight champion and dares to dream of Olympic glory.

His path so far took all the determination he could muster, Nassar told AFP, having an iced coffee in a cafe in the Berlin district of Kreuzberg, where he grew up.

"It was as if I had to prove twice as much because I am not only a woman boxing, but I also wear the headscarf," he said, during a break between strenuous training sessions.

"In the end it made me stronger," he laughed, his make-up face known to countless Instagram fans framed by a pastel-colored floral scarf, sunglasses perched on top.

The Tokyo Olympics next year and then the Paris Games in 2024 "are my big dream, my big goal," the young woman smiled.

That dream was only available in February, when the International Boxing Association (AIBA) modified its rules to allow Muslim boxers to wear a hijab and completely cover their bodies in the ring.

When it comes to qualification, "now the prerequisites are the same for everyone," said Nassar, who in training and in competition uses the head covered, as well as a blouse and full-length leggings.

"Only sports performance should count. We should not be reduced to our external appearance."

- "I'm super fast" -

His list of achievements already includes six Berlin titles in the featherweight category and the 2018 German Championship title.

In 24 official fights, Nassar, weighing 57 kilos (125 pounds), recorded 18 wins, including one by KO, which is rare in this category.

"My boxing style is very unconventional but I'm super fast. It's my strength," he said, imitating a few top hooks and hooks.

"For my opponents it is very unpleasant to fight against me," he laughed.

But for many years, the student of education and sociology could not compete in international fights because of her outfit.

This year, the German Boxing Federation, which had changed its own rules in 2013, introduced Nassar to the U-22 European Championship, which however banned it due to his attire.

Nassar, who also speaks Arabic and travels regularly to Lebanon, his parents' country of origin, said he never thought of taking off his hijab for boxing.

"Why should I have done that?" she said. "It has always been clear to me that I would fight with my veil."

In Germany, the use of the veil tends to be widely accepted on grounds of religious freedom.

- Critics -

However, the fight has not yet won.

Berlin's Olympic ambitions, like those of other athletes with headscarves, face criticism that brandished a rule for the Olympic Games that prohibits the display of political, religious or racial symbols.

"Even if the boxing association, like most federations, has given way, the Olympic Charter has not changed," said Annie Sugier, president of the International League for Women's Rights.

Criticizing participation in the Olympic Games in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose athletes must be covered "from head to toe," Sugier called the hijabs in the sport "sexual apartheid."

In France, in April, Iranian boxer Sadaf Khadem won her first official fight dressed in shorts and a vest.

- "The most modest fashion" -

Despite the controversy surrounding the hijab in some Western countries, sportswear giants have already begun offering less revealing clothes to take advantage of the "modest fashion" market, which is now worth hundreds of millions of euros.

Nassar is a brand ambassador for the American sportswear manufacturer Nike, which has been marketing a sports hijab for almost two years.

The boxer, who is very active in social networks, has become a role model for young Muslim women in particular.

"If you want to reach the top, you have to fight," read a recent message from the boxer.

"Nothing is simply a gift. Accept challenges and grow beyond them. And don't forget to smile."

Before leaving the cafe, she posted a new photo of herself on Instagram and told AFP: "I want to show people that everything is possible if you fight for it."

The image of Nassar was also used in a poster campaign to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the German constitution, the Basic Law.

He promoted article 4, which states that "the intact practice of religion will be guaranteed."