Razia Shabnam: Muslim woman boxing coach breaks stereotypes

Razia Shabnam, one of the first women boxing coaches in India broke stereotype and proved that boxing did not belong to ‘only men’ exceptionally in Muslim community.

Freedom does not come for free:

Shabnam took to the boxing ring in 1998 and went on to become one of the first women boxing coaches in India, in 2001.

Shabnam is not only country’s first woman to become an international boxing referee and judge, but has also travelled abroad to officiate in international boxing tournaments.

Razia wanted freedom from the stereotype that boxing did not belong to women. Each step was a struggle. Her journey revealed the limits placed by society. Yet, it showed the possibilities of freedom for individuals in independent India.

Fighting gender discrimination:

Shabnam’s family appreciated her participation in the sport when boxing clubs in Kolkata’s Muslim-dominated localities of Ekbalpore and Kidderpore area opened their doors to girls in 1997-98. Her father, Rahat Hussain, was a wrestler and brother of a boxer.

Her neighbours, however, were not happy with the idea.

“My family came under immense pressure from the community. They were told what they were doing was un-Islamic. They threw taunts that a woman boxer would not get a good groom. We were stopped on our way to the class and abused publicly,” said the 37-year-old. The family also faced criticism for letting her study in college.

Yet, her parents stuck to the decision.

To shun off societal pressure, all they asked her to do, was go to the coaching class in traditional attire, salwar and kameez.

“The firmness in my parents’ decision came from my father’s conviction that sports helped develop better personality,” Shabnam said.

During the years of struggle ‘to be able to do the male things forbidden for women,’ she realised that women cutting across socio-religious sections suffer nearly equal gender discrimination.

“As a boxer, coach and referee, I never faced religious discrimination but I had to battle gender discrimination all throughout,” she said.

The 1BHK flat in an old building in Muslim dominated Ekbalpore area tells that her laurels don’t enable her to support her family.

With no job, the remuneration from officiating boxing matches and salary from coaching young girls is paltry. The family runs on the income of her husband, a trader.

Yet, her success paved the way for others.

At Kidderpore School of Physical Culture where Shabnam started taking her boxing classes in 1998 fathers, mostly from poor families, now plead with the coach to take their daughters as a student.

Most of the parents hope excellence in boxing would open ways for jobs under the sports quota. Others feel girls need to know basic self-defence knowledge.

While some of the Muslim girls still arrive in burkha and change to boxing costume at the club, more girls now arrive in loose tracksuits and shorts. They practice on an outdoor boxing ring.

Father, husband – Backbone of success:

Just back from the five-day certification course for Star 1 level international referee and judge, conducted by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) in Guwahati, Shabnam juggles her passion for the sport with family responsibilities.

Her husband, Mohammad Faiyaz, takes care of their two children when she is away.

“Like my father, my husband too faced taunts for letting me continue, particularly because I also officiate in men’s matches. He battled it,” she says, visibly proud. This is why Shabnam feels the struggle for freedom also needs helping hands.

She now coaches girls, both Hindus and Muslims, from the city’s red-light area who live at a care centre run by an NGO.

“The bleak prospect of a professional career out of boxing hasn’t dampened their spirit. Boxing gives them the confidence to break barriers and teaches self-preservation,” she said.

Shabnam not only teaches them boxing alone but also how to land knockout punches on the face of a society that aims to suppress women