Many believe that boxing is an aggressive and masculine sport, and the Qatari society is no different as it sees it unsuitable for women because it is incompatible with society’s perception of femininity. All these misconceptions contributed to women being less likely to practice boxing in Qatar. However, Afaf Abdi Al Qarni did not let any of these misconceptions stop her from achieving her dream. In this interview, we talk to Afaf Abdi Alqorane, the brave woman who resisted the limits imposed on her by society. She became the first woman in Qatar to practice Olympic boxing professionally, thus paving the way for more women in Qatar who would like boxing to pursue this field. So, who is Afaf Abdi Alqorane?
I am the first female Olympic boxer in Qatar. I have been practicing since 2016, and my goal is to represent Qatar at the international level in boxing. I also wanted to spread awareness about boxing in Qatari society, especially among women. In my beginnings, I was training in a simple club. With continuous training, my skills began to improve, and soon, I was blessed to meet my coach, Mr. Naseer Ali Al Assire, from Oman, who nurtured my talent, and I am forever grateful for all he has done me. He trained me and taught me so much about this sport until 2017. I then approached the Qatar Wrestling Federation to represent Qatar in the championships formally. Unfortunately, my request was rejected on the pretext that I am a woman! They also advised me not to practice this sport, which according to their understanding, is a violent one. Instead, they suggested that I join sports more suitable for women, such as ballet, gymnastics, or athletics, but I did not want to pursue any sport other than boxing. Alhamdulillah, after a year of long struggle and a great effort, we received the approval in late 2019. Qatar Women’s Sports Committee and the Federation agreed on opening a boxing academy for women. We were in the process of opening it and were able to find a medical team and physiotherapists, planned the training schedules and even had some women registered in it. But unfortunately, the world was hit with Covid-19, and we had to stop all the work temporarily.
Have you always preferred boxing?
I loved martial arts from a young age as I used to play taekwondo, but I didn’t feel it was the right sport for me. The Qatar Taekwondo Federation once approached me to represent Qatar, but I chose to continue boxing. If I had agreed to their proposal, it would have been like I had given up my dream. My transition from playing taekwondo to boxing was smooth because taekwondo is similar to boxing. Also, I had a very good coach. My coach, Mr. Nasser, trained me very well and helped me develop my talent. I would say that the only problem I faced while shifting from taekwondo to boxing happened in the first six months of my training in boxing because taekwondo is based on attacking with legs, whereas boxing heavily relies on attacking with hands only.
Have you participated in boxing tournaments?
I participated in 2 friendly tournaments in Oman, where I achieved second place in the first tournament and third place in the second one. But I participated as a part of a club, so these matches are not registered in my credit as an Olympic boxer because I did not represent the country officially. I even paid to participate in those tournaments from my pocket because it was an investment in improving my skills. I planned to travel in February 2020, along with the other Qatar’s national team players, to attend the boxing tournament in Kuwait, which would have marked our first official match. It would have been a great opportunity to announce to the world the female Olympic boxers of Qatar. But it was canceled due to the pandemic. Regardless, inshallah, we will open the academy soon. We will get a schedule from the Qatar Federation and the Qatar Olympic Committee about the tournaments that we will be able to participate in.
Can you tell us about your training as a boxer?
I train 4 days a week, run for 5 kilometers twice a week, and I rest for only a day. My coach, Mr. Nasser, usually prepares the training schedule and plans all the exercises. All I have to do is show up for the training. The first days of the training were very difficult because physically, I was going through a new experience, but after a while, my body and mind got used to it, and the training became easier. After that, we traveled to a training boot camp in Oman as part of the kickboxing club. In that boot camp, I had my first experience training with men. But my coach instructed them not to throw the first attack, and he left that for me to do as it will improve my reaction and defense, and I will gain from their experiences. And it did change the way I was playing as I have improved my skills and developed my abilities tremendously.
Can you tell us about the boxing academy that will be opened?
When I first submitted the application to represent Qatar and open an academy dedicated to boxing, the Federation rejected the application. It was only approved after a long struggle that lasted 2 years. We were active in spreading the word about Olympic boxing through local newspapers. We had to highlight the differences between types of boxing. Eventually, Mr. Khaled Youssef Al Mas, Assistant Secretary of the Qatar Boxing and Wrestling Federation approved the proposal. We were also supported by Mrs. Lolwa Al Marri, the President of Qatar Women’s Sports, and she was the first person to welcome me and encourage me in my pursuit. She even helped me when I requested a place for training. I prepared everything for the academy to start running, but everything came to a pause because of Corona. The awareness workshops that we did included women as well, and we announced those workshops on Instagram, through which we registered many women boxers in the academy. We have a prevalent issue: most people do not know the difference between boxing and kickboxing, so we always have to explain the difference between the two during workshops. Kickboxing is not an Olympic sport, and one cannot compete in it at the international level, but it can be practiced or played at home and in clubs, so if a person wants to become a professional Olympic athlete, they must join the Olympic boxing. We were surprised by the number of women who were excited about the opening of the academy. Some even expressed their desire to play boxing to release negative energy and relieve stress and pressure. Boxing can help in improving the clarity of mind by reducing anger and stress, and after the practice session, the player returns home happy and energized. As for joining the academy, the trainee must be committed to attending all the training sessions, and currently, we have about 19 trainees registered in the academy, and they come from different nationalities, including Qataris. The Federation is responsible for choosing the coaches as we are bound to their laws, but the players prefer to have a female coach, so I have decided to train them until we finish all formalities, even though I still train as a player.
What is the difference between your role as a player and a coach?
I became a coach because I love boxing, and I want to improve myself. Currently, I offer individual and group classes, and Mr. Nasser trained me to be a coach, and he taught me the fundamentals of training. There is a difference between being a player and being a coach. The player’s role is simpler than the coach’s role because all the player has to wear boxing gloves and follow the coach’s instructions. But the coach has many responsibilities that put them under severe pressure. More attention and focus are required more than the coach because one small wrong step can lead to injury. So, a smart coach will teach the player how to avoid such things. The way a coach treats the player will greatly impact how that player feels and how much effort they put in. Some coaches treat their players according to their mood; if the coach is having a bad day, they will make the training harder on the players. That is why, as a coach, I always try to separate my personal problems from my work and focus on the players themselves. So, I make sure that the player places her full focus on boxing during the training because lack of focus may lead to injuries, and if I feel that a trainee is not focused, I stop her from training and only resume when her mind has cleared and being a coach taught me how to be responsible. I also care greatly about my students’ feelings. My goal is to cultivate the love of this sport in my students. I try to be in a good relationship with the students and always make sure of their feelings and physical well-being. For example, I would ask them if they have slept well or felt any fatigue after training, and so on. I keep myself updated with their conditions to feel that they are taken care of. I can only make them feel that way if I am honest in my work, which will make the student enjoy practicing boxing. Alhamdulillah, some of my students have told me that they keep training because of me.
How did you handle the rejection of your request to open a boxing academy?
It was a very difficult period, and it affected me, and I spiraled into depression. I have worked hard for a whole year to improve myself, set up a female boxing team, do workshops, and travel at my expense, all because I had a dream. So, their rejection was a rejection of my dream, and when you have a dream and strive for it, but it gets rejected, you will fall into a deep sadness. I was frustrated and kept wondering why they would approve of other martial arts for women, such as judo, karate, and taekwondo, but reject boxing when all countries have a women’s boxing team. They told me that boxing includes beating and may cause injuries, but their excuse did not make sense to me because judo and other sports can also cause injuries; players may get hurt in any sport. They criticized me because I am a woman, and they tried to make their refusal seem as if they were protecting me! I told them that I would be the one in the ring fighting, not you, so let me worry about my safety. Women participate in all kinds of sports, so I will not accept anyone to tell me that boxing is harmful or not for women. In 2019, I met Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser while attending an Open Championship in Katara. I approached her and told her about my dream and desire to represent Qatar. After a while, I met with His Highness Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani, and I told him that the Federation rejected me without a good reason, and Alhamdulillah, I received an approval two months later.
How did people around you react to your dream to represent Qatar in boxing?
Alhamdulillah, I am blessed with a family that encourages me, and friends who support me, but I faced criticism from society. When I tell people I’m a boxer, the first comment I get will be: “don’t hit me!” Because they believe that boxing is violent, and to be honest, I can’t blame them because this stereotype about boxing is created by what is shown on television. People watch boxers like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, who practice professional boxing, and they think this is what boxing looks like. To participate in that type of boxing, you must be under the sponsorship of an organization. Also, professional boxing consists of typically much longer rounds, and its laws are different from Olympic boxing, which is the type I play and advocate for. Olympic boxing consists of 3 rounds, including a two-minute rest. But the misconception remains, which is why I always try to educate people on the differences. I even had to explain it to the Federation when I approached them When I first started, I was easily triggered by people’s opinions of me. But with continued practice of boxing, and with the help of my coach, who always inspired me and advised me not to take those comments too seriously, I no longer get affected by those comments. I learned how to deal with those people, and I am stubborn, so I’m not going to change my path.
Can you tell us more about how boxing affected you?
I love boxing because it helped me discover myself and my abilities, taught me how to deal with others, and completely changed my personality. Boxing has a positive effect on those who practice it. Unfortunately, the prevailing opinion in society is that it is a violent sport and that women who practice it will become masculine. Even I faced such comments, for example, I appeared as a guest in many talk shows, and hosts would express their surprise with my personality as they would expect to be interviewing a masculine woman, but after the interview, they would express their shock because I am still very feminine.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
I highly encourage them to take self-defense classes and not to be afraid of such sports. Even if someone practices once for 45-minutes, they will be able to release all the negative energy they might have, which will improve their daily lives. Sports generally help in self-improvement, but martial arts are special because their effect is stronger. When I get stressed because of work or life, just practicing for an hour makes me feel like the happiest person in the world.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.