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Why Muslim Women Are Being Drawn to Martial Arts and Why You Should Too

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 20th July, 2023

Why Muslim women are being drawn to martial arts and why you should too

There I was, standing in Sainsbury’s looking at the items in the aisles, when a random stranger approached me, “You are the perfect poster-girl for the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ phrase”, he said. 

Bewildered, I looked back at him for a second and then down at myself. In all my rush to get groceries, I had completely forgotten I was still wearing my white taekwondo suit, wrapped in hijab, pink cheeked and flushed from my evening class. At that moment, I didn’t know what else to say except for an awkward laugh and “um, thank you?”. 

I understood the stranger’s positive sentiment, but something about his “compliment” didn’t sit right with me. What underlying stereotypes were you judging me for in the first place? What did my taekwondo outfit do to change that perception? The undertone felt more as if he was saying “don’t judge a Muslim woman by their cover”. As if the headscarf I choose to wear has negative implications.

In the 2016 Summer Olympics, more Muslim women won in martial arts than in any other sport. In fact, in January 2023, the youngest person in the UK to have earned a black belt in kung-fu and coached it was a 12-year-old girl named Fatin Kylychbekova. When interviewed about her plans to set up her own institution for kung-fu, Fatin said, “I strongly believe it will help transform many lives, just as it has transformed mine. Honestly, it is worth pursuing, as the fruits and benefits are evident.”  Fatin is currently looking for sponsors to help her establish her own kung-fu school. 

Not only is this an extraordinary achievement for someone at such a young age, Fatin also just so happens to be a Muslim hijabi.

Martial arts offers just one avenue to channel the strength Muslim women already possess. The truth is, a visibly Muslim woman doing martial arts is not as tokenistic and unusual as you may think. 

There was a lot to unpack with the stranger’s comment towards me and afterwards I felt annoyed by it. If only I had questioned what he meant by that. But of course, those clever comebacks only come to you once you’re standing in the shower. This here is a longer version of my shower thoughts and my way of answering back to this fleeting comment.

These are the women who inspire me every day and I wish the world would recognize and appreciate their extraordinary strength.

So why are Muslim women so drawn to self-defence sports?

Compatibility with Islam

There is a lot that can be said about how compatible Islam is with martial arts (they’re not as opposing as the Sainsbury stranger thought). From its modest uniform to the idea of self-discipline, fitness, seeking knowledge and ihsaan (excellence), these are just a few things about martial arts that naturally align with our faith.

When I spoke to Hasina Rahman, the combat sport instructor behind Pink Diamond Martial Arts, she said  “In Islam, our body and health is a gift, an Amanah to look after.”

“Martial art skills can be traced back to the time of the Prophet where women were known to participate in battles when help was needed. Nusaybah ra & Khawla bint Al-Azwar were renowned for their martial arts and sword skills.

As women, we must prioritise our health and remain active, not just for ourselves, but also for our children, family and most of all for our Deen”, Hasina concluded.

A fellow classmate noted that martial arts promote similar values to Islam, such as character building and purifying ourselves from lowly traits like anger, arrogance, jealousy etc. Allah mentions in the Quran,

“Successful is the one who has purified his soul” (Surah Ash-Shams 91:9) 

“Taekwondo fosters characteristics such as humility, respect, and positivity to name a few, which are considered praiseworthy qualities in Islam.” 

This also applies to more niche variations of martial arts. Sumaya Hassan who trains in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) explained that its basically fencing and sparring while using medieval European Sword Fighting techniques. HEMA involves a huge range of weapons like long sword, side sword, spears, broadsword etc.

“I have been doing it for 2 years, and I really enjoy it because I love being active and I’ve always had a deep interest in medieval history. The community is welcoming and inclusive. I gravitated towards this because of the modest uniform which I felt wasn’t offered by other sports. If there is any other Muslim woman who enjoys this unique sport, I would love to meet her as it can get lonely being the only Muslim woman in my HEMA community.”

Similarly, Zubia Khalid practises Kendo (a modern Japanese martial art which involves bamboo swords shinai) in her spare time and explained how her protective armour bōgu is naturally quite modest and empowering.

Mental Health Benefits

Another thing that Islam and Martial arts have in common is the fact that they both encourage mental well-being.

“Most people assume it’s all physical, but the mental gain is so much more.” Hasina spoke of her experience – “Martial arts helped me accept who I am, made me feel empowered, and built my character into the person I am today.” I wholeheartedly agree. From my personal experience, exercising twice a week greatly improved my mental health and boosted my energy levels. It provided an outlet to release workday tensions and replace them with positive energy.

I sat down with my inspiring taekwondo teacher, Master Alina Rasouli, (who also happens to be teaching us whilst heavily pregnant, Allahuma barik). She emphasised that self-defence isn’t only applicable when someone is physically attacking us. “Of course, that’s a part of it. You have to be capable of standing up for yourself in those situations. But there is another perspective to defending ourselves. Many Muslim women face pressures at home, whether from family or society, that they don’t know how to handle.”

Alina believes that learning physical self-defence can build the confidence for mental-defence too, such as feeling that you are enough and being able to say “no”. “It is within our rights as Muslim women to learn to stand up for ourselves when we are being made to feel we should sit down.”

Alina also stressed the importance of Muslim women finding time for themselves through the chaos of daily lives and responsibilities, “I’m a mum like other mums. The only difference is that I give time to myself. If every woman gives themselves one hour a day to do something they love, they can lead happier and stress-free lives.”

The need for faith-inclusive sport facilities

I’ve always been interested in martial arts since a young age, but the lack of safe and faith-inclusive spaces to pursue the sport was definitely inhibiting. The club I was previously enrolled in was male-dominated and had students who were toddlers or fully grown adult men. I didn’t feel comfortable fighting either. 

I’m grateful to Master Alina Rasouli for providing a safe space for Muslim women at London Taekwondo Active in Acton Gardens Community centre. The class is open to all women and includes people of diverse ages and races, majority of whom are Muslim women who wear hijab. This allows us to take off our hijabs in a private setting or keep it on if we feel more comfortable with it whilst exercising. The nature of the martial arts outfit is also in harmony with modest clothing in Islam. Everyone I spoke to who wears hijab and practices martial arts said it has never held them back in any way.

We also pause the class to pray together, which was particularly helpful during winter when salah times were close together. It was an amazing experience during Ramadan to work out with my fellow sisters in the day and then pray with them in the masjid at night.

During our conversation, Master Alina shared a profound metaphor that highly resonated with me. She likened our bodies to rooms that require cleaning. She said,“Imagine you keep putting your dirty clothes and clutter in a room and never tidy it up. What do you think will happen? Ramadan is a time for cleansing. It’s an opportunity to purify our bodies, minds and souls, promoting better health overall.”


For Hasina from Pink Diamond Martial arts, the inspiration came from not having any visible Muslim women in sports when growing up.

“I felt like sport was something girls should not be interested in. I wanted to be the person the next generation could look up to. I want to inspire girls and women to be active and not put a limit to what they can achieve. My religion is very important to me and that’s something I want to be visible, no matter what or where I am.” Hasina elaborated.

Aisha Umar, a Malakai Boxing Women’s Coach, spoke of her experience of being one of three girls in her kickboxing class and the only hijabi. “Representation is important now, more than ever. It’s imperative that we overcome barriers and show up for others and most importantly ourselves!”

Part of what the Sainsbury stranger said earlier is true (assuming he had good intentions). The representation of Muslim women in martial arts is somewhat scarce, especially on our screens. But a lot of that is changing too, especially with the recent film Polite Society featuring a British Pakistani martial arts student, Ria Khan, as the protagonist.

Martial arts and beyond

It has to be said that Taekwondo is not the only choice of self-defence sport available to us. Sumayah Mohamed has recently taken up a bow and arrow. She explained excitedly,

“The reward with archery is twofold: it’s great for your health and it was part of the Sunnah of the Prophet who encouraged parents to teach their children the sport.”

“Indeed, strength is in archery.” (Sahih Muslim, 1917 – 167).

In addition to being genuinely enjoyable, Sumayah said,  “I feel it encourages tenacity and focus. With every arrow you shoot, you know you come a little closer to hitting your target.”

She likened this concept to other acts of worship such as dua – “With every dua I make I know I come a little closer to having my prayers answered and hitting my personal targets!”

Muslim women are thriving in sports, as showcased by various organisations run by Muslim women with the purpose of uplifting our community. Two such examples are Skater Uktis specialising in skateboarding and Asra club in running.

These are just a few trailblazers who are lighting the path and making it easier for the next generation to see themselves represented, and not be judged while standing in grocery aisles.

I hope we get to a point soon where people don’t see hijabis in sports through a tokenist “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” lens and instead see them as strong because they cover, not in spite of it.

Shaheena Uddin

Shaheena Uddin

Shaheena is a 21-year-old Journalist based in London. She loves to explore everything from faith, politics, art, entertainment and the environment in her work. In her spare time, she enjoys photography, books and geeky fandoms. She is also a Taekwondo student, a keen swimmer and is trying to learn skateboarding.