Even before they met, Aliyah Charbonier could totally relate to Amaiya Zafar. The two share a love of boxing. “My brother used to box, and I used to go to the gym with him,” says Aliyah, 15. “At first, I trained for conditioning, then I got serious.” Each understands the lure of the sport. “I like it because you don’t have to depend on anyone else,” she says. “It’s just you and your opponent in the ring.”
But each also understands the difficulty of finding an opponent. “Here in Florida, there are maybe five girls, and they’re not the same age or weight,” Aliyah says. “So it’s hard to get fights here. Most girls who box are in California or Texas.” So each was excited last year, when they were scheduled to square off at an event in Florida. Amaiya traveled all the way from her home in Minnesota for the opportunity. They never got the chance.
Officials disqualified Amaiya, a Muslim, who wears a hijab under her headgear as well as a shirt and leggings under her top and shorts. The extra clothing items are in keeping with her faith, but each is a uniform violation, according to the International Boxing Association. The reasoning: an athlete could hide an injury, further endangering himself or herself.
Despite being declared the winner, Aliyah was disappointed at a missed opportunity. She was even more upset for Amaiya, “just because of her outfit. That made it even harder on her.” So Aliyah took the belt she was awarded and gave it to Amaiya, declaring her “the true winner. At first, she was confused, then I told her she deserved it. She said thank you, and we hugged.” Spectators began to cry. Disregarding the officials’ ruling, event promoter Bert Wells made sure both girls got a belt. Since then, the two have become friends and have spent time together, training in Minnesota last February. For a Floridian like Aliyah, “That was pretty much fun, but it was freezing.”
As their story gained national attention, the sport’s attitude shifted. With encouragement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, USA Boxing adopted a religious exemption, and Amaiya became the first boxer to wear a hijab in a sanctioned American event this spring. Though she lost her bout, Amaiya said, “It shows that it’s not about the outcome. It’s that all girls should get a chance. It felt like I had a purpose.”
Wells hopes she will return to fight again in Florida. Aliyah believes the story’s appeal comes from “girls in boxing and because it’s a religious issue” and downplays her role. “I didn’t think that people would make it a big deal, because I didn’t really do anything that important.” But this broader discussion of gender and religion in the sport might not have been sparked, if not for Aliyah’s act of selflessness and sportsmanship.