Meet Ruqsana Begum, the Muslim Thai-boxing world champion who trained in secret throughout her teens. By Sally Williams
Last April, Ruqsana Begum, who grew up in east London and studied architecture at Westminster University, became the Muay Thai world champion after beating Susanna Salmijärvi from Sweden. She had been selected from a pool of 10 elite female boxers from around the world to compete for the title, and the fight was held in the circular auditorium of The Round Chapel in Hackney.
At first glance it was a straightforward fight: two young women at the height of their careers in a sport growing in popularity. Muay Thai (or Thai boxing) is a form of kick-boxing where fighters strike with their fists and their legs (specifically the lower part of the shin, which if deployed correctly, has the force and impact of a baseball bat). It has a big following among millennials and was recently granted provisional Olympic status (final acceptance can take up to seven years).
For women, gaining the right to box has been a battle – they weren’t allowed to compete in conventional boxing in the Olympics until 2012. And for Muslim women, in particular, the problem is compounded. By the time Begum won her first competition at 19, she had spent several years concealing the fact that she was a martial-arts fanatic from her parents, on the grounds that they wouldn’t approve of her training in a gym wearing revealing clothes while hitting and being hit by men. Not that she isn’t respectful of her faith: in the world-title fight she wore red leggings under her shorts; her opponent had bare legs.
Her fighting career was also derailed by an arranged marriage in her early 20s, which proved disastrous. And the final complication is that she suffers from ME, or chronic fatigue syndrome, which is a long-term illness where the severity of symptoms can vary from one day to the next.
‘ When my ME cuts in I can barely climb the stairs let alone go into the ring and have a worldtitle fight,’ she says. She was struck down a week before the fight. ‘I woke on that Saturday morning and I spoke to my coach. I said, “I’m sweating, I’ve got a fever.” And he said, “Rox take a cab, get to the venue, and we’ll make a decision then.”’ Towards the end of the fight she felt so weak she thought her legs would give way. ‘I remember my coach held me and he said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “I’m dead, I’m gone.” And he goes, “Rox, this is a worldtitle fight! Wake up!”’ She kept going until the bell went. ‘Thankfully, it was enough.’
We meet at the KO Gym, a cavernous space beneath three railway arches in Bethnal Green, east London. Revered in Thai-boxing circles, the gym is Begum’s home-from-home where she trains six times a week, for up to two hours a day. It’s a subterranean world of locker rooms, fluorescent lights, thumping music, mirrors and the stink of sweat. City boys, Bangladeshi kids from the estates, muscular black dudes, immigrants from Lithuania and Poland; some professional fighters, some here simply to keep fit – all thumping punch bags, sweating sit-ups, beating the hell out of each other in the ring.
‘It isn’t very female-friendly,’ Begum admits. ‘But if I can hold my own with the guys, I know that when I step into the ring I will have the edge.’
It’s 10am when we meet and she has already done her warm-up: press-ups, sit-ups, skipping, building up her quads – you need powerful legs for Thai boxing. She is tiny, 5ft 3in; weighs in at 48kg (7st 5lbs) and fights as a light flyweight, one of 19 categories in the Muay Thai division.
Now it’s time for some conventional boxing – to ‘sharpen’ her Muay Thai. A bell goes and Brian O’shaughnessy, one of her coaches, bounces on the spot, as she stalks around the perimeter of the ring. Then she comes in, hammering him with double jabs, hard rights, hooks, uppercuts. When she’s not boxing, Begum is sweet, obliging, with an open, smiley face that makes her look much younger than 33, but in the ring she hardens into elemental aggression. ‘She has that kill or be kille d instinct,’ O’shaughnessy tells me later. ‘A lot of boxers have got the talent, but they haven’t got the instinct. When she’s outside the ring you’d never know, it’s only when she’s inside that you realise.’
‘I have two sides to me,’ she admits. ‘I hate confrontation, even now at home, but I love fighting.’ Ever since her early teens these two sides have been in constant tension. On the one hand obedience, on the other rebellion. And her sport takes the strain out of that tension. ‘Sport is my release,’ she says.
Ruqsana Begum was born in Bethnal Green, where her father worked as a tailor-cum-machinist in a factory making leather jackets for highstreet fashion stores. Her mother was a housewife and Begum is one of five. It was her paternal grandfather who moved to the UK from Sylhet, Bangladesh, to fight for the British in the Second World War.
The family lived in a council flat among the predominantly Bangladeshi community and Begum, who was ‘sports mad’, went to the local primary school, and then to Swanlea, a mixed secondary in Whitechapel. She describes her family as ‘close-knit’ and talks often of being ‘a good daughter’. In other words she went to Arabic classes after school; she learnt to read the Koran; she dressed modestly in a salwar kameez
(trousers with a knee-length tunic); she helped her mother with the chores.
In fact, she says her father was open-minded in the sense that he supported her education and allowed her to play in the park when she was young. ‘My friends’ fathers were stricter.’ Her parents even let her have school swimming lessons and go on a week’s trip to the countryside when she 10.
However, once she hit puberty it changed. No more riding her bike in the park or playing football with the boys. ‘Even if we were seen talking to a guy my mum would ask so many questions, “Why are you talking to him? What’s going on?”’ No sleepovers with the girls, no after-school visits to friends’ houses, unless she needed help with homework and then only for an hour or so.
The traditionalist in Begum – the part of her that wanted to be good and do the right thing – went along with it. ‘I just accepted that this was their belief: that you’re a young woman now, you should learn how to cook, help your mother at home, so that is what I did.’
In 2001, when she was 17, doing her A-levels (art, history, Bengali, media studies) and set on university (in London; living away from home was out of the question), she saw a notice at college for kick-boxing classes.
As a child she had been introduced to Bruce Lee films by an uncle who was a frequent visitor. Begum was fascinated. ‘But we never had the opportunity to do martial arts at school.’ And the cost of private lessons, even if her parents had agreed, was outside the family budget. This was her chance. She told her mother she was going shopping. ‘I just loved it. They didn’t teach you much, just jab, cross. But I knew I wanted to do more.’
Unfortunately that was her first and only lesson. ‘The school didn’t have the funding to continue the sessions.’ But the instructor handed Begum his card with the address of a gym about a 10-minute walk from her home. A few weeks later, this time with the cover of visiting her grandfather, who was in hospital (the visit wasn’t a lie; just the amount of time she spent at his bedside), she went to the gym. And it was here – at the KO Gym (then in Punderson’s Gardens, Bethnal Green), where many years later she would celebrate becoming world champion by taking the entire gym out to dinner – where she found, as she puts it – her ‘life’, and also her Muay Thai coach.
Bill Judd is something of a hero in the world of Thai boxing, having trained and nurtured many world-class competitors. ‘Bill saw something in me,’ Begum says. ‘I was determined to learn and absorb everything he was teaching.’ And so began the period of subterfuge. ‘When my younger brother was 16 he was scouted by Arsenal [for a training camp] and my father said, “No.”’ As he saw it his son’s education should come first. ‘My brother was quite stroppy for a couple of years because he felt like he’d lost his opportunity. And that playe d in my head. I thought if they’re not letting their son participate in sport, why would they let their daughter?
‘I would wake up extra early on a Sunday morning,’ she explains, ‘help my mum with the cooking, make sure I’d hoovered the house, done all the chores so she was pleased with me and in a good mood, and then I’d politely ask, “Mum, can I go to the gym?” And she would say, “OK, you can go for an hour, seeing as you’ve done everything else.”’
The Sunday-afternoon class started at 2pm and actually lasted two hours, but Begum knew she couldn’t push it. ‘My coach was aware I had to be home at a certain time, so he’d let me leave early.’ Of course when Begum said ‘gym’, her mother pictured running machines and exercise bikes. ‘I felt too nervous to reveal any more,’ she says.
She paid for the classes (£5 a session) and for the kit – gloves, wraps, mouthguard, kick-boxing trousers – with a holiday job in JD Sports, and weekend work in a chemist. She would wash her own kit and dry it as surreptitiously as possible. But deceiving your parents must have made you feel terrible, I say. ‘Actually, it made me a much better daughter,’ she replies. ‘I didn’t care about going out with my friends, or wearing fancy clothes. I didn’t want to stay out late. All I wanted was to go to the gym for that hour, so I would make sure I was on my best behaviour for the rest of the week.’
Studying architecture at university opened up another opportunity. ‘I had evening lectures. So I knew my family wouldn’t be expecting me home at a specific time. I started to become a little bit braver and train on Tuesday evenings, too.’
In 2006 she was in her final year at Westminster, thinking about her future career, when her parents broke the news: she was to get married. ‘I was just finishing off my dissertation. I said, “Can this not wait?” And my father said, “No. They’re a nice family, you will be really happy there.”’ And so, at 22, she found herself married to a man who worked in banking and living with her in-laws in Barking. She was also now working at an architectural firm, commuting every day to Epping Forest. Thai boxing faded away. ‘It was a new lifestyle,’ she says.
The comfort of her in-laws became her priority. ‘If my father-in-law wanted tea I would have to be the one to make it. If they had guests I would have to be happy and cheery and do the snacks and the food. And if they stayed late, I’d have to stay up and help with the washing-up, even though I had work the next day.’
She hoovered, cleaned and helped financially. ‘I was trying to please everyone.’ She could no longer, for example, just switch on the TV and watch Eastenders. She felt ‘suffocated’.
Eight months later, she had a breakdown. ‘I remember going to work on a Monday feeling more tired than I had done on the Friday. It came to the point where I couldn’t keep it up any more.’ One Sunday afternoon, ‘just when I thought I’d have to accept this is my life’, she collapsed on the kitchen floor. She spent two days in hospital and was later diagnosed as suffering from severe panic attacks. A kindly woman GP told her to pack her bags and move back to her parents’ house. ‘She was Indian, she understood what was going on.’
Begum went home to recuperate and her husband filed for divorce in 2008, and that was the end of the marriage. But something good came of it: it led to a seismic shift in her relationship with her parents. ‘I think my family felt I had done everything they wanted me to.’ A good daughter – and a good daughter-in-law. ‘They couldn’t fault me on anything. I never raised my voice at my in-laws, I never swore, they knew I couldn’t have done any more. And when they realised what the other family were like, and what I was going through, they felt very upset and sad for me. On top of that I’d lost my job because of the recession, so everything was crumbling.’
Her GP prescribed antidepressants, but she knew what would make her happy. ‘I said to my father that I wanted to show him something.’ She brought him to the KO Gym. ‘He sat with my coach and they spoke for an hour.’
Three years later, Begum won a gold medal in the European Club Cup Amateur Muay Thai Championships in Latvia. ‘My father was so proud, he showed it to my grandmother. We turned a corner on that day I took him the gym,’ she says. ‘I didn’t have to live a double life any more.’ Within the local Bangladeshi community, Begum says people only really became aware of her success when she became the British champion in 2011, and the media gave her such good press that she was upheld as an example of what Bangladeshis can achieve. She remembers going to a function with her father at that time and being asked to speak: ‘I had been so fearful of this, my father’s generation, but they were proud of me.’
She has since moved into her own flat in Gants Hill, Ilford, but still spends half the week with her parents, who live nearby. She is now a full-time athlete (until last year she worked part-time as a school science technician). Her aim is to switch to conventional boxing – ‘Women’s boxing is really taking off. I want to see what I can do’ – and pursue bu s i n e s s in t e r e s t s . I n 2 01 2, sh e launched a line of sports hijabs that are made of Lycra and don’t require a safety pin to hold together. ‘I want to help more Muslim women participate in sport.’ Begum herself only feels the need to wear a hijab at prayer and in the mosque; she also wore it on a recent pilgrimage to Mecca in Hejaz, Saudi Arabia .
She has to work around the ME which was diagnos ed i n 2 01 0. Sl e e p he lp s – e i ght hours a night is essential – and a tailored training regime. ‘It’s all about performance, not too much on fitness.’ She does yoga and works closely with a nutritionist. She eats like an athlete: lots of protein ( grilled chicken, salmon), vegetables; not so many carbohydrates. ‘The important thing is to avoid too much sugar, so I don’t have spikes in my blood-sugar levels.’
‘I am very happy and proud of myself,’ she says. Emotions that Begum has only recently allowed herself to acknowledge. ‘Quite often I’ve forgotten to give myself a pat on the back for what I’ve achieved and what I’ve had to overcome.’
‘Women’s boxing is taking off. I want to see what I can do’
Went to the gym in secret Has a kick like a baseball bat And is a Thai-boxing world champion