Gaza - Nisaa FM -Together - As a child, Rahaf Mahmoud Samih Abu Naji enjoyed watching American WWE wrestling daily with her father in their home in Gaza. Rahaf, now 18, didn't realise that those early moments would inspire her to take up a combat sport and overturn Gaza's strict societal norms.
“I was looking for boxing, and we searched a lot to find it in Gaza,” recalls Rahaf. “I was using my mobile phone one day, and suddenly I saw girls posting on Instagram about boxing. I asked about the whereabouts of the place. My father and I contacted them so that I could sign up,” she explains.
Al-Mashtal Boxing Club is the first female-only establishment in Gaza. Although the club has been operating for five years, its formal opening this year attracted many aspiring female fighters. Gender norms in Gaza are slowly shifting due to increased interest in combat sports like boxing.
“They say that this sport is only for young men. We used to face a lot of criticism,” recalls 18-year-old Hala Ayoub, a boxing club regular. “Society always said, 'It's forbidden for you to play. It’s for young boys, not girls.’” They would talk a lot, and we would tell them, “It can happen, and it will,” adds Rahaf.
The boxing team is led by coach Ibtisam Nasr. She says that the boxing club was initially designed for young men, but it later became clear that girls were also interested in the sport.
“In the beginning, when they first started, it was a strange thing in Gaza for girls to box, but now people are starting to come to terms with girls playing combat sports,” says coach Ibtisam. “Girls taking up fighting is becoming a normal thing in Gaza,” she adds.
When the girls initially began boxing, they faced a lot of backlash and criticism. Negativity came not only from males but also came from some of the girls’ closest female friends.
Rahaf recollects one incident, “I entered a competition and shared a picture of myself and my buddies. On Instagram, one of the females made a snarky remark. I asked her to tell me what she meant by what she said, and she replied, 'You're not a boy to play. You're a girl.’”
In her response to her friend, Rahaf stressed that whatever young boys are capable of, girls can also accomplish. “What they can play, we can play also,” she said.
Farah Abu Al-Qumsan is one of Gaza’s youngest female boxers. In 2020, the club awarded her the title of Best Female Fighter at the tender age of 15. In addition to sharing a passion for boxing with Rahaf and Hala, the trio are also really close friends. “We’re always together and go to the club together. We eat and go to the beach together in our free time,” Farah said.
Rahaf expresses the same feelings. She says, “We've been together for more than six years. All of the girls in the boxing club are my friends, my company and my loved ones. We hang out together, eat, play and do everything together.”
In the boxing ring, however, the friendship is set aside. “When we train, we box like normal opponents. It’s different when we fight outside of training. Friendship doesn’t play a role. Each boxer shows off their skills as if they are boxing against another opponent,” Farah explains.
As a group, the attendees at the Al-Mashtal club are all committed to helping the Palestinian female fighters to compete internationally. Competing overseas would be a fantastic opportunity and a game-changer for many girls in Gaza. “My dream is to compete in events outside of Palestine, raise the Palestinian flag, start a club, and become a trainer,” a defiant Hala says.
Rahaf shares the same sentiments. “My ambitions are to fight abroad and get first place, for all females in Gaza to see my success, and for people to see that in Gaza, things do happen.”
The boxing club’s public opening proves that change is happening and that there is a massive appetite for female sport in Gaza. Through their courage and determination, they will undoubtedly bring success to their homeland whilst demonstrating women's importance in society.