Skip to main site content.
13 girls are all longing for the perfect ring -- a boxing ring, that is

Fight club

Take an exclusive look inside Pakistan’s first all-girl boxing club

By Sanam Maher on November 24, 2015

They are part of the first-ever official training program in Pakistan to teach women how to box. The First Women Boxing Coaching Camp has been organized by the Sindh Boxing Association (SBA) in Lyari, Karachi, a neighborhood known for two things: gang violence and sports stars, particularly footballers and boxers, including Olympian Syed Hussain Shah.

It all started when a 16-year-old girl, Khadijah, approached the 2013 Sindh boxing champion and resident of Lyari, Nadir Kachi, and asked him to train her. She wanted to learn to box, but couldn’t find any club willing to teach her. All the girls she knew used to watch videos of matches or training sessions and practice in their homes. They had no way of competing, as no inter-club, district, provincial, or national-level boxing fights are held for women in Pakistan.

Nadir took Khadijah to his coach, Younis Qambrani. “I have been training my daughters to box since they could put on a pair of gloves,” explained Qambrani, whose family includes several gold medalists in the sport. Qambrani started including Khadijah in those training sessions. A few days later, another girl showed up asking for training, having heard of Khadijah’s sessions. Word spread and before he knew it, Qambrani had 13 girls in his home, all wanting to become boxers. At that point, the coach knew he had to find a space and an official program for them.

Protecting the players

“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,” explained SBA secretary Asghar Baloch. When asked why, he shrugged. “This is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Baloch explained that any attempts to bring female players into sports like hockey, cricket, tennis or football have been met with fierce resistance. And so, well before the SBA had to figure out how to fund the camp, Baloch and his colleagues had to make sure the girls would be safeguarded against any criticism from those who believe they have no place in a sports arena.

Earlier this month, news broke of a clash on a university campus in Karachi when a religio-political student activist group allegedly attacked some female students for playing cricket, and the camp’s organizers wanted to avoid any such incidents. “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,” said Mohammad Hussain Qambrani, the coach’s brother and president of the Pak Shaheen Boxing Club. “We wanted to make sure we account for this culture and don’t give such people something to complain about.”

The camp is not being held in a playground or sports field, but in a small, under-construction building with just one floor, naked light bulbs, no fans or bathrooms. However, it is ideal — even with the constant hammering and drilling — as it gives the girls a closed off space to train within, away from prying eyes. “For parents who feel scared about their girls coming here, these four walls serve as pardah (a veil) to outsiders,” Hussain Qambrani noted.

These concerns about security do not filter down to the girls. They have to worry about just one rule — they must stay in school if they want to train to be boxers.

At the camp’s inauguration ceremony, the girls were all told to wear hijab or headscarves. When 17-year-old Anam, Hussain Qambrani’s niece, was asked to show off some moves for members of the media who had been invited to the ceremony, a cameraman asked her if she could take her scarf off. Anam hesitated. Hussain Qambrani was worried for the girl, but also wanted her to feel free, he said. “I told her, ‘Do it, if that’s what you need to. Allah maalik hai (God will see what happens).’”

Building the body and spirit

“Our goal is very simple,” Asghar Baloch explained. “Pakistani male athletes have made our country proud on so many platforms, such as the Olympics, the Commonwealth and Asian Games, and we want our girls to be able to fly our nation’s flag just as high all over the world.” The 10-day camp received some seed money of Rs150,000 ($1,422) from the provincial government, to buy equipment such as boxing gloves and punching bags, and the organizers intend to continue the camp until the money runs out. At the moment, they are petitioning the SBA for funds to purchase uniforms and shoes (many of the girls come to the camp wearing the only shoes they have — slippers or sandals), weightlifting equipment, floor mats and, most importantly, a boxing ring. “They need to learn to fight in a ring, to see what life within those ropes is like,” points out Hussain Qambrani.

The organizers have started up a sister program in another neighborhood in north Karachi, so the girls in Lyari may have someone to compete against in inter-club fights. Coach Younis Qambrani hopes that Anam, so far the star fighter of the camp, can go on to become a coach or referee when she is not competing.

In order to excel at boxing, the girls must be taught one crucial element of the sport: confidence. “If you had come here just a week ago, the girls would have been too shy to speak to you,” Hussain Qambrani said. “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.” If this is what can be achieved in just a week, he feels, imagine how far these girls could go with consistent training. “We want to strengthen both the mind and body,” Hussain Qambrani explained. “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.”

The gradual change in attitude is apparent. “Some of my own relatives have even said we are mad for wanting to do this,” said Anam. “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.” She hopes that once people see the girls fighting, they’ll be encouraged to send their own children into the ring. “I am also someone’s daughter,” she said quietly.

Eighteen-year-old Nadir Kachi comes to the camp every day to assist the coach in the training. A former Sindh champion, he has been brought in to fight against the girls. However, he lets them dictate the terms. “If I fight them properly now, they’ll get scared,” he explained. “When they’ve built up their talent and are confident, I’ll definitely get a punch or two in so they learn what a real fight is like.”

While the coach coaxes a swift left hook out of Anam, Nadir fights against two sisters, 12-year-old Amna and nine-year-old Areesha. The little girls just clear Nadir’s waist, but they’re scrappy, swinging relentlessly at his sides as they try to land a punch. When the two sisters are pitted against each other, Amna lands a blow on Areesha’s mouth, her glove smearing the younger one’s bright pink lipstick right off. Don’t be fooled by their size, Nadir advised while separating them. “Boys have two arms and legs and so do girls. So why wouldn’t these girls fight just like boys?” he asked. He looks forward to the day these girls can knock him out. “If they beat me today, then tomorrow, God willing, they’ll beat others,” he predicted.

Nadir makes videos of the training session on his phone and shows them to his female relatives. He has brought two cousins to one session, but they’re still too shy to join in and, instead, observe from the sidelines. “The women of our families leave their homes when they get married only to go to someone else’s home and work there, scrubbing floors and keeping the house clean,” he said. “Is this what we are raising girls for? So they can go to someone’s house and become a maasi (maid)? Why not let the girls come here and train and make something of themselves?”

But what about marriage? I asked the girls as they huddled together after the day’s session. What if your husband does not want you to become a boxer? “I just won’t get married until I’m competing on an international level,” answered Anam. The other 12 girls all nodded, and 16-year-old Azmeena drove the point home, asking: “How can someone have the guts to tell us we cannot do something when our own fathers have given us permission to do so?”

Sanam Maher is a Karachi-based journalist and tweets @SanamMKhi


Photos show Afghan women who are boxing, rapping, and breaking all manner of tradition

Despite living in a ‘man’s world,’ the surf girls of Bangladesh are on the rise

Fearless female motocross rider races for gender equality in Iran