Just four months ago, Anita Karim, 22, stepped into a fighting ring for the first time in her life in Singapore. She is all of 5 feet tall and 114 pounds. She stood across from a female opponent from New Zealand who was far more experienced than her. Because of her nervousness, she says, she lost the match. But just the fact that she took part in a tournament at international level is a tremendous achievement for Anita — she is Pakistan’s first and only professional female Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter.
It has only been a year-and-a-half since Anita joined her three brothers Ehtisham, Uloomi and Ali Sultan Karim in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, from the remote, northern Hunza Valley. Anita, a small but fierce woman with a side shave, had no previous experience in MMA. It was her brothers who inspired her to take up the sport — they are the founders of Fight Fortress, one of the first MMA training facilities in Pakistan.
MMA, an extreme combat sport that mixes techniques of grappling, boxing and martial arts such as judo and karate, has recently become very popular in Pakistan where it is still a relatively new sport. According to Anita’s brother Uloomi, who is now one of the most famous MMA fighters in Pakistan, there was almost no awareness of the sport 10 years ago. But between 2014 and 2016, Uloomi’s international fights started attracting media attention in the country and subsequently, more and more people wanted to begin competing.
When Anita first got to Islamabad, she was supposed to begin studying for a bachelor’s degree in business administration, but MMA stole her heart. “When I came here and saw the gym, I stopped my studies there. I can’t provide time for both,” she recalls.
There was one problem, however: There were no other female fighters for Anita to train or compete with. But this did not deter her. “First time it was so difficult for me [to train with men]. But I think girls can do everything. Many people think that we are weak but we can’t lose our hope. So I continued.”
“They hit me more,” she laughs. “They hit me like a boy.”
Although MMA can be brutal, Anita is not afraid of suffering injuries. “I can’t get scared. I have to make my mind strong,” she says.
Since there are no other women to compete with in MMA in Pakistan, Anita must always go abroad to take part in tournaments.
“There is no awareness here in Pakistan. People can stop their daughters from [taking part in MMA] because we train with men,” she explains.
Whenever she manages to defeat a man while training, she feels like she has achieved something. “I’m so happy that I can do better,” she says.
Her brothers believe making women train with men is good for their self-confidence. “We actually want women to train alongside men so that they don’t feel inferior to men. Or that men in this society don’t feel superior to women,” Uloomi says.
“[In Pakistan], there’s a lot of stereotypes about male and female interaction and it’s considered a male dominant society,” Uloomi continues. “Our concept is that if men and women can live together, they can work in the same environment in offices and go to colleges and universities together, why not train together?” He adds, “Women should be doing the same things at the same level as men. That’s what women’s empowerment is all about.”
Now, with Anita’s rising popularity, more women have, in fact, taken an interest in the sport. “We have seen a lot of women and girls who come to us who want to get trained like Anita and want to be like [her],” Uloomi says.
But pressure from society and families makes it difficult for many women to pursue a professional fighting career like Anita. Nevertheless, according to Uloomi, there is a high potential that more female fighters will emerge from Pakistan in the future.
“It’s all about the mindset and this culture that we have here, that the typical men think that women should stay in the kitchen, stay at home and do nothing all day,” he says.
Such attitudes are especially common in rural areas and in families with low literacy levels. But people in Pakistan’s larger cities are much more progressive, and Anita has not had to deal with too many negative comments. Still, her short hair and boxing gloves can be a shock to many, even some of her friends.
“They say, ‘Wow, you cut your hair and you look like a boy! We can’t believe you’re doing these things,’” she says.
Anita has been lucky. Her parents have been very supportive of her and never questioned her choice to leave her studies. “[My father] said, ‘Follow your passion,’” she says.
In fact, it was Anita’s father, himself a martial artist, who signed her up for Taekwondo classes when she was 12 years old.
But even more important was her mother, Yasmin Karim, a women’s rights campaigner and recipient of the Human Rights Defender Award by the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2012, who influenced both Anita and her brothers.
“She encourages us and gives us a lot of ideas on how to empower women as well,” Anita’s brother Uloomi says.
By setting an example, Anita hopes to challenge rigid attitudes about women in Pakistan. “I always wonder, why is the environment of our society [such] that people think that girls can’t do anything,” she asks. “Why [do they try to] kill our dreams?”
Anita says that even though Hunza is a liberal area, there were still some people who questioned her choice of profession.
“Now people realize that I’m doing a good thing.”
Aside from being a confidence boost, Anita believes MMA can also be extremely useful for women in real life situations. Like in the West, sexual harassment of women has been a widely discussed topic in Pakistan lately.
“MMA gives specific techniques and the belief that we can defend ourselves in any situation,” she says. “We can believe in ourselves and go outside independently.”
So far, Anita has not faced a situation outside the ring where she’s needed to defend herself. But if something were to happen, she would not hesitate to take matters in her own hands. “I will punch them in the face,” she says confidently.
For someone who has earned the nickname “Arm Collector” by breaking two of her opponents’ arms in a grappling challenge, any man who might dare accost her on the street would be advised to be fearful.
It is Anita’s dream to no longer be the only female MMA fighter in Pakistan and she hopes to inspire other women to join in. After having won five gold medals in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Pakistan, she now aims higher in MMA, setting her sights on becoming an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter one day.
But before that, Anita is going back to Singapore in February. This time, having now experienced her first fight in a ring, she hopes she will be able to let go of her nervousness and make her country proud.
Below, watch a video of Karim in action working out and in the ring delivering a knockout punch.
Maija Liuhto is an independent journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy and Al Jazeera English, among others. Follow her on Twitter here.