Britain’s first amateur boxing coach to train while wearing a hijab was told by cruel strangers told her she brought ‘shame’ on her community.
Zahra Butt, from Aspley, Nottinghamshire, took up boxing when she was diagnosed with postnatal depression – and became hooked on the sport.
But the Muslim mum of three, who runs classes especially designed to help victims of domestic abuse, didn’t want to remove her hijab to train – and says she was inundated with cruel comments.
Zahra, 40, has now ditched her teaching career to become a full-time coach – and says the number of positive messages she receives help her to ignore the haters.
‘I have had a lot of discrimination because of my headscarf, people have been saying it brings shame into the community – it’s really bizarre, when you do something outside the norms some people feel like they should judge you,’ says Zahra.
‘Initially it was really upsetting, very hurtful, it made me reevaluate everything and it put me in a position where I questioned whether I wanted to keep doing everything and whether I was doing the right thing or not.
‘It had a deep emotional impact on me and my well-being – it caused a lot of problems as well as my family believed I put myself at risk for something that inevitably wasn’t worth my peace of mind.’
Zahra says that for every negative comment she has had, she has had hundreds of positive comments, so she tries to focus on these.
‘I try not to let people’s opinions bring me down,’ she explains.
‘I wanted to run classes for women because if it helped me, I knew it would help other women to boost their confidence and have a positive impact on their mental health.
‘It still has the image of being a rough sport- I think people are just picturing me going into street fights.
‘When I tell people I am into boxing they ask me: “Why would you be into boxing, you’re such a nice person?”
‘It is definitely still seen as a man’s sport by a lot of people.’
Zahra has used her position to become an advocate for domestic violence and stalking victims and is helping women all over the country.
Her sessions include a combination of boxing and life coaching, helping women gain back their confidence – at the moment, she is doing one-to-one classes and plans to begin group sessions on Zoom for the duration of the lockdown.
‘I had put on weight after having children and was suffering from postnatal depression,’ explains Zahra, looking back on how she got in to the sport.
‘I got to a point where I knew I had to change something about my life and what I was doing, so I thought I’d use my time to exercise and get fit. I started working out on a cross trainer at home and started to lose weight – but after a while it was getting boring so I thought I’d try something different and challenging.
‘I found boxing really therapeutic, I loved how it challenged me, I liked the mix of cardio and weights. I got addicted, it became something I did every single day.
‘What made me like boxing at first was the fact that the first time I met a coach, I could tell by the look on his face he was thinking I probably couldn’t do it.
‘I’m sure he was thinking: “she’s not going to go through with it.”
‘Seeing somebody who thought I couldn’t do it made me want it even more – I’ve always been that type of person.
‘I felt that he was thinking I wouldn’t last the whole duration of the training and I was out of place.
‘Boxing also gave me an identity, made me realise I wasn’t happy at my teaching career and I wanted to do something else. I was never really interested in the technique, I enjoyed it to get fit and healthy and challenge my body and mind.’
In 2014, Zahra became the only coach wearing a hijab, to qualify with the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) and a qualified health coach.
Even after being diagnosed with stage 4 endometriosis, Zahra hasn’t given up and she continues to support women through workshops, campaigning and podcasts.
While the lockdown is still ongoing, Zahra has started a 2.6 challenge, running 6K daily for 26 days while fasting, in an attempt to raise funds for Paladin, a national stalking charity.
‘The lockdown has really affected my mental health,’ says Zahra. ‘I was feeling trapped inside and I just started walking – then I came up with the idea of doing the challenge.
‘I wanted to highlight how much domestic abuse and stalking can affect someone’s life, we often don’t get to hear what’s actually happened. I do this for myself and to inspire and motivate other people. I do it for people who don’t have that opportunity.
‘My children have been my rock through all this, they are so proud of me and very supportive.
‘Because running is not my thing, sometimes I stall, I say; “let me do this chore first”, but my children are always there saying, “no mum, leave it, you‘ll do it after!”
‘It has been challenging and many times I think to myself; “why did you do this?” but I realise it’s my lower self trying to keep me down, but I get motivated again and do it.
‘It’s very important to keep getting exercise, it makes such a change to our mindset and our mental health.’
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