End it like Begum: a British Asian woman’s quest for the muay thai world title

Ruqsana Begum, a British Muslim from east London, has a date with destiny on 15th March when she fights for the muay thai world title. But getting to the ring has been a battle in itself.

End it like Begum: a British Asian woman’s quest for the muay thai world title

Ruqsana Begum, a 31-year-old British Muslim from Ilford in east London, has a date with destiny on 15th March when she fights for the muay thai world title. But the economics of her sport, not to mention the circumstances of her upbringing, have made getting to the ring a battle in itself.

For many outside the region, muay thai boxing is something seen while travelling through south-east Asia on the way to the beach or some other tourist hot spot. They encounter stages identical to boxing rings, with fighters clad in brightly coloured shorts, but that usually comprises the extent of their knowledge.

Muay thai is a martial art in which fighters are permitted to strike their opponents with elbows, knees, shins, feet and fists, and execute clinching manoeuvres. A match typically lasts no more than five rounds, with each round lasting three minutes. Unfortunately, due to the sport's low profile outside countries like Thailand, its biggest stars remain widely unknown and commercially restricted.

Ruqsana Begum is a 31-year-old British Muslim from Ilford in east London, and muay thai boxing has changed her whole life. The sport has brought about a number of especially difficult decisions, many of which are still to be made as she approaches a world title fight scheduled for 1st March 2015.

A qualified architect, Begum has harboured a fascination for martial arts ever since she could read, but it was a pastime and passion that she would keep secret for years. She began training seriously whilst at the University of Westminster and, 14 years on, she is on the verge of becoming the women's muay thai world champion.

"After starting at 17 I kept it a secret until after I graduated," she says. "I would go to the gym, do an hour's session and run back home because I knew my parents wouldn't approve. I would wake up extra early to do all the house chores so my mum couldn't say, 'No, the house needs cleaning!' And so I went out of my way to make sure that I could train."

​"I think it's only recently, with women's boxing in the Olympics, that the outlook of people has changed vastly."

Anyone who has seen the hit movie Bend it Like Beckham‚ a comedy about a British-Asian girl whose love for playing soccer conflicts with her parent's conservative values, will be familiar with elements of Begum's story. However, she reveals how much easier it would have been had she been that film's heroine.

"My family was a lot stricter because I'm from a Muslim family rather than a Sikh family," she says. "At that time just going out was difficult, just going to a friend's house: my parents wouldn't really let me. My sister used to cover up for me and if I came home with bruises I would go straight up to my room and hide for the day."

After fighting through some of her own personal problems, Ruqsana finally told her parents. Wanting their daughter to be happy, her mother and father accepted her decision - although they still do not attend her fights. However, with the guilt lifted, Begum believes her performances have improved dramatically and her results are testament to this.

She is the current British female atomweight champion and captain of the British Muay Thai Boxing Team, and she was also a London 2012 Olympic torchbearer. Despite these achievements, a number of other stumbling blocks remain. Female participation in martial arts was, and to some extent still is, considered taboo in many parts of the world.

"I think it's only recently, with women's boxing in the Olympics, that the outlook of people has changed vastly," argues Begum. "There is a lot more support now. Five years ago, even, it wasn't easy at all: people wouldn't respect you or give you the credit you deserved as an athlete."

Additionally, the sport is still to take off outside its core territories in Asia. In particular, it has failed to find meaningful popularity in major markets like the US, limiting its global commercial potential compared to disciplines such as mixed martial arts (MMA) and boxing.

MMA's Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has gone from strength to strength in the last ten years in the US and beyond, with female stars such as Ronda Rousey not only household names in their sphere but sport in general. For Begum, these successes provide her own martial arts discipline with hope.

"It would be great if other female athletes especially in sports such as thai boxing can really get recognised for what they do and their accomplishments," she says. "The men's sport is a little bit more prominent and so we are really at the bottom end of getting recognition or any kind of platform to fight and shine."

Muay thai's commercial viability is undermined by the fact that it is still not represented at the Olympics. As a result, sponsors, broadcasters and agents are unwilling to commit to the sport and its stars. Because of this, Begum is just one example of many who struggle to fully devote themselves to their martial art. Ahead of her title fight, she plans to train in Thailand for two months, a move she is financing through other means.

"I started working as a technology technician at a school and now I'm a science technician," she reveals. "My main job is training but I do a bit of coaching with youths, I do privates and my two days at the school.

"At the moment I am approaching companies myself and I'm still looking for an agent to represent me. I've managed to get myself signed up by RDX Equipment and I do have a main sponsor called DCD Property Company and they've been helping me. But again because it's not an Olympic sport, they turned around and told me they could not support me any longer."

"This is my one chance to make a difference, to be a role model and to inspire the younger generation."

For Begum, the financial instability surrounding her participation goes even further. "A lot will depend on my sponsors and if I can get some time off work," she adds. "If not, I'll have to resign and make that sacrifice because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me."

Muay thai, along with many other martial arts, has the capacity to grow because, at its core, it is a sport in which anyone can participate. There is no need for cars, clubs or croquet sticks, only a pair of gloves and the willingness to inflict some damage on your opponent. In Asia, in particular, it is incredibly popular and that volume of support should bode well for the future.

As for Begum's title fight, at the time of writing the identity of her opponent is still not known, nor is the venue - a far cry from boxing, where the fight's location is now promoted as much as the bout itself. Muay thai still has some way to go before it reaches the heights of other combat sports.

Ultimately, the right backing could make the world of difference to Begum's world title hopes.  "I need sponsorship that will enable me to be able to train full-time rather than just get my fights paid for," she says. "I'm really grateful for this but if I could just give 110 per cent for my upcoming fight then I won't have any regrets.

"This is my one chance to make a difference, to be a role model and to inspire the younger generation and females from all backgrounds and ethnic minorities."