Ruqsana Begum: Muay Thai kickboxing world champion and world traveller
Ruqsana Begum is a British Muslim, the current Muay Thai kickboxing world champion, a trained architect, and the designer of a sports hijab.
She has recently set her sights on professional boxing.
She describes herself as a ‘modern Muslim Asian female’ - but her background and upbringing were not without challenges.
Ruqsana tells us about her Muay Thai kickboxing and boxing career, how she hid her kickboxing dream from her family for 5 years, what made her eventually tell them about it, and how her career in professional kickboxing has allowed her to explore the world. She also shares some motivational words and advice.
- Interview by Katie Silcox
Tell us a bit about your upbringing?
I grew up in East London, close to Bethnal Green. I had a traditional Asian-Muslim-Bangladeshi upbringing. I was the eldest daughter and my mother was extremely strict and protective over how I was raised; she wanted me to be the role model for my sister and my younger brothers.
I was always the sportiest girl in my local primary school, and I was fascinated by martial arts. I remember watching Bruce Lee and Mohammed Ali and I saw them as role models; they were sophisticated, intelligent and humble.
How did your family feel about you getting into kickboxing?
I started kickboxing at age 18, and I hid it from my parents for 5 years. I would sacrifice everything to make sure I was the best daughter for my mum. I’d wake up early on a Sunday morning, do all the house chores to make sure my mum was in a good mood, and then I’d ask her politely if I could go to the gym. She assumed I was using the treadmill, but I’d go to the martial arts studio. That was the highlight of my week.
Eventually I decided to tell them. This actually came about because because I was having a hard time in an arranged marriage, which was a culture shock for me. I also had a demanding career in architecture (the degree I had studied for.) One day I collapsed in my parent’s house, was taken to hospital, and was eventually diagnosed with severe depression and associated panic attacks, I was bed-bound for 3 months.
After 3 months in bed taking antidepressant tablets, I realised that I’m a fighter and I didn’t want this. I also didn’t want to live a double life anymore so I took my parents to the gym and introduced them to my coach - they sat with him for 2 hours and had a heart-to-heart. He helped them realise that the gym was open to all faiths and all backgrounds - and that it was a safe place for me.
My parents never said it was ok, but they also never said it wasn’t ok. They simply took a step back an allowed me to dive into the sport. This is when I started training full time.
You’re of Bangladeshi origin, have you been to Bangladesh?
I visited Bangladesh a few times when I was young, the last time I went was when I was 16. I’d love to go back.
There are lots of tailoring workshops in Bangladesh that I’d like to explore, they provide clothes for many of the high street brands we know, such as H&M. I designed a sports hijab a couple of years ago, so it would be great to see if I can create work within the Bangladeshi tailoring industry by manufacturing my sports hijab there.
Are you still selling your sports hijabs?
I’m not at the moment. I designed it because I felt like there was a gap in the market. I clearly remember that in the London 2012 Olympics, Muslim athletes were not allowed to compete with a hijab on because of safety requirements. Eventually Nike designed a pro-hijab for one of the athletes and she was allowed to compete. But this made me realise that the sports hijab shouldn’t just be for pro-athletes, but also for younger Muslim girls who are taking part in PE or for mothers who want to go for a run - it should be available to everyone.
When fitness meets faith, Muslim women shouldn’t have to compromise. That’s why I designed the sports hijab. I produced and sold it for a couple of years, but then the Nike sports hijab was designed for the mass-market too, which is fantastic. At that point I realised that because the sports hijab was readily available I didn’t need to continue, and could focus on my training instead.
How have boxing and kickboxing influenced your travels?
I’ve travelled a lot for training, and to compete in championships. The first time was for a Muay Thai training camp in Thailand. Boxing and kickboxing has also taken me to Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Latvia, Russia, and Turkey. Recently I’ve travelled to Las Vegas four times for kickboxing training camps.
Usually when I’m travelling for training, I make sure I train Monday - Friday, and then at weekends I try to enjoy the destination. When I was in Las Vegas I went to the Red Rock Canyon and took a helicopter tour.
How do your parents feel now about your success in kickboxing and the related world travels that go with it?
They don’t say it, but I think they’re really proud. They’re also used to me travelling and competing now.
When I won my world title it made a huge difference because the community received me really well. I think my parents also know I haven’t changed as a person; I still have the same roots, the same values - just with modern goals. I just get to do what I’m passionate about.
Of all your travels, where have been your top 3 places you’ve visted?
Thailand, Uzbekistan and Las Vegas. In Uzbekistan I had a really enjoyable time because of the hospitality and culture of the locals. Vegas is a favourite because of how good kickboxing training camps are there.
And where are the top 3 places you’d like to visit?
Bali, Japan and San Francisco.
As an inspirational female role model, do you have any advice for younger girls with a dream?
People start believing in you once you’re already there - so if you have a dream or a passion, you need to convince others that you belong there - not wait for others to validate you.
Believe in yourself. It’s not how many times you get knocked down - it’s how many times you lift yourself back up. Resilience and perseverance will get you there.
Do you have any other upcoming projects or competitions you’d like to share with us?
After a successful kickboxing career, I’ve switched and am training to become a professional boxer, my goal is to become a world champion in it. I’ve completed this in kickboxing so I’ve started a different journey and challenge.
My motivation for this is to inspire people; if my new journey can inspire even one person to look at me and realise that new journeys are possible, that means so much to me.
This is what gets me back in the ring.
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