Knocked Out By A Headscarf: German Boxer Fights For Her Rights
Zeina Nassar is already a national featherweight champion. But to reach greater heights, she'll have to overcome international boxing's restrictive dress-code.
BERLIN — The street light remains red. On the street, a car emerges from the darkness, then another one, and one more. On the sidewalk, a young woman is bouncing closer and closer to the curb. Left foot, right foot, always on her toes. Left. Right. Zeina Nassar is waiting for the green light.
Nassar has had a busy day. A statistics lecture at the campus of the University of Potsdam in Griebnitzsee, no lunch, then a train to the campus in Golm. In the compartment she practiced her presentation for the seminar. In the cafeteria she had a cup of fennel tea, but they were out of bananas. Then her presentation, which she herself rates as "very cool," then back on the train to Charlottenburg. It was 18 minutes late and she missed the connecting train. A cheese pastry at Westkreuz that was too dry and too hot, another train, and now, at Spandau station, she is half an hour late.
Not wanting to lose any more time, Nassar bobs and weaves. Left toe tip. Right toe tip. At some point no more cars emerge from the darkness and she starts running. It's only when she's about half-way across the road that the traffic light finally turns green.
Not a minute to lose
This is a story about time. About the time it takes a young person to find herself and to develop her strength. But it is also a story about the time that can be robbed from a young person.
Zeina Nassar is 20 years old. She is a German featherweight champion, but isn't close to satisfied. That's why she doesn't waste a minute. Not on the train, not in the canteen, not at the traffic lights. "Recently, I've noticed that I've been doing something for years: When I wait for the light to turn green, I'm also trying to be the first to go," she says. "I'm so focused that I always want to go forward, that I start right away when it turns green — and then I turn around to see if I was the fastest."
The way Nassar waits for the green light is a good description of her life. On the stairs she takes two steps at once, ignoring the escalator. In the morning, she shows up at her lectures with handwritten notes of what she is about to hear. Sometimes it seems like she's always ahead of her time.
In 2018 she managed not to waste a minute; it was her most successful year so far. She became Berlin champion for the fifth time and German champion for the first time. But as a boxer, she is still far from her goal: of becoming European champion, world champion, Olympic champion. But that is far away even for her.
Zeina Nassar is now a brand ambassador for global sports brand Nike - Photo: Instagram
Nassar has set up her life around these goals: she trains six days a week, sometimes twice a day. She has a boxing coach, a running coach, and now, this evening in Spandau, she's on her way to see her athletic coach, Snezan Stjepic. The young boxer pays for the classes by the hour, and they aren't cheap.
Stjepic has many customers, Nassar explains in a hurry, so if she arrives late the coach may not have much time left for training. Nassar almost runs to the yard of a former factory, turns the corner, goes up the stairs. At the end of a corridor, Stjepic is waiting. Nassar apologizes. They hug. Stjepic tells her not to worry: she can train the full hour. Nassar disappears in the locker room.
Tackling new challenges
There can be many reasons why a woman wears a headscarf. Politicians, lawyers and many others argue over whether a headscarf is a religious, political or cultural symbol, and whether it should be allowed in courtrooms and schools. The sports world is particularly slow in opening up to headscarves. And then there's boxing, which is among the sports that have not opened up at all internationally.
Hardly any other sport is still such a bastion of machismo. Almost all coaches, managers and referees are men, even in women's fights. That women can deliver high-class boxing matches is still debated in the industry. Even Germany's most beloved boxers, Ukraine's Klitschko brothers, have made disparaging remarks. Wladimir, the younger, once said that he "could in no way watch" women boxing. From their managers, women boxers are often praised as beauties, and even more often they are made to wear tight outfits.
I have always needed new challenges. Just to do it. To know whether I can or cannot make it.
What Olympic female boxers are allowed to wear is strictly stated in the regulations of the International Boxing Association (AIBA). Clothing that covers the knees is forbidden, and arms must also be in sight. Long sleeves under the jersey, pants and headscarves are also forbidden.
Nassar was eight years old when she decided she wanted to wear a headscarf. Her older sister wore one, and since she was an authority figure for her, Nassar also wanted to wear one. Her mother asked her whether she wanted to wait a little longer — maybe one more year? But she wasn't interested in waiting.
Some five years later, Nassar saw a documentary about girls boxing. Sit-ups. Air punches. She saw the images of a world that was foreign to her. "The unknown tempted me. I thought it was just for men or too dangerous," she says. "I have always needed new challenges. Just to do it. To know whether I can or cannot make it."
Seven years later, she has become a symbol. She travels to Amsterdam and London for meetings; she has met soccer players Kylian Mbappé of France and female star Lieke Martens of The Netherlands, as well as LeBron James, the basketball star. The day before our evening together in Spandau, she had a photo shoot with her sponsor. The next day she was off to Cologne for a TV show.
For the 70th anniversary of the Constitution in 2019, she is now an ambassador for the Germany Integration Foundation, in relation to Article 4.2, which guarantees "the undisturbed exercise of religion." She often talks about the role of women and Muslim women. It is an important issue to her and that she's given a lot of thought to.
"Rights are the same for everyone," Nassar says. "It doesn't matter what you look like, where you come from, what language you speak — especially in this day and age. I feel that women have long been underestimated. Today we can show that we are capable of fighting, boxing or of many other things."
"It's very important to me that everyone has the same rights and can do whatever they want," she adds. "Nobody can tell me that I cannot or should not achieve something. I decide for myself what it is that I want."
Incidentally, Nassar is acting in a play at the Berlin Gorki Theater. The theme is the self-determination of different personalities.
Rituals and religion
Now that she has become a symbol, she is first and foremost the athlete with a headscarf, the equal opportunity fighter. It is a role that she gladly and passionately takes on. But it is not who she feels she is. When she thinks about herself, she is still just a fighter in the ring. "I did not start boxing because I wanted to change things, but because I found it interesting," Nassar explains.
When she told her parents that she wanted to box, they were initially shocked. "It's something for men; it's too dangerous." Those were their thoughts. So Nassar sat them down in the living room. She explained that boxing teaches respect, that it increases concentration, that it would make her a better student. They were left with no arguments.
Just a few years earlier, the competition regulations of the German Boxing Association, like the AIBA regulations, had forbidden long sleeves and pants. Nassar's luck was that her first coach, Linos Bitterling, was the first female referee in Germany, had good contacts, and used them. The boxing bosses soon had no more arguments and the competition rules were changed. The rule now says: "Female boxers can be allowed a jersey with long sleeves and long leg clothing under the shorts for reasons of faith." And also: a headscarf.
Nassar fought on and never lost again.
As 14-year-old Nassar participated for the first time in an official fight in the boxing ring, her opponent was fighting for the fifth time. Nassar fought bravely, but unconventionally, with one hand hanging far below her chin. She lost. Nevertheless, people congratulated her. "That's when I realized that you don't have to be a winner to be accepted," she says. "It's about how you do it."
Nassar fought on and never lost again. The best German boxer in her weight class, she had planned to compete in the U22 European Championship in 2019. But she was not allowed to participate because she violated the rules with her long-sleeved shirt and the headscarf.
Michael Müller, sports director of the German Boxing Association, and president Jürgen Kyas are now advocating for Nassar at AIBA. She says she also needs diplomatic support from Germany's Foreign Office and the Chancellery. There is not much time left: the next Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo in 2020. Nassar hopes that AIBA will allow her to participate. But before that happens, she has to wait again.
In the evening, after working out with Stjepic, Nassar sits in a chair on the edge of the training area. She talks about rituals, and eventually about religion. "Religion is very important to me," she says. "But you can see that: I'm wearing a headscarf. At the same time, I also think it is private. Everyone should be able to find a faith and live with it, or not. I do not ask those who do not wear a headscarf: Are you a Christian? Why? Because it is private."
The young woman, who sees herself as a boxer and wants to be seen as a boxer, says goodbye. She wants some time for herself. Nassar feels every muscle. She knows that she is doing everything to stick to her path.