Berlin boxer Zeina Nassar’s fighting spirit has won her plenty of titles, but her battle to wear the hijab in the ring has also made her an equal opportunity champion.
Today, the 21-year-old, who discovered female boxing by watching online videos as a teenager, is a German amateur featherweight champion and dares to dream of Olympic glory.
Her path so far took all the determination she could muster, Nassar told AFP, sipping an iced coffee at a cafe in Berlin´s Kreuzberg district, where she grew up.
“It was as if I had to prove twice as much because not only am I a woman who boxes, but I also wear the headscarf,” she said, during a break between gruelling training sessions.
“In the end it made me stronger,” she laughed, her made-up face known to countless Instagram fans framed by a pastel-coloured floral headscarf, sunglasses perched on top.
Next year’s Tokyo Olympics and then the Paris Games in 2024 “are my great dream, my great goal,” smiled the young woman.
That dream only came within reach in February, when the International Boxing Association (AIBA) amended its rules to allow Muslim boxers to wear a hijab and fully cover their bodies in the ring.
When it comes to qualifying, “now the prerequisites are the same for all,” said Nassar, who in training and in competition wears the head covering as well as a full-length top and leggings.
“Only sporting performance should count. We must not be reduced to our external appearance.”
Her list of achievements already includes six Berlin titles in the featherweight category, and the 2018 German Championship title.
In 24 official fights, Nassar, who weighs 57 kilos (125 pounds), recorded 18 victories, including one by KO, which is rare in this category.
“My boxing style is very unconventional but I´m super fast. It´s my strength,” she said, mimicking a few uppercuts and hooks.
“For my opponents it’s very unpleasant to box against me,” she laughed.
But for many years, the education and sociology student could not compete in international fights because of her attire.
This year, the German Boxing Federation, which had changed its own rules in 2013, put forward Nassar for the European Under-22 Championships, which however barred her due to her outfit.
Nassar, who also speaks Arabic and regularly travels to Lebanon, her parents´ country of origin, said it never occurred to her to take off her hijab for boxing.
“Why should I have done that?” she said. “For me it has always been clear that I would fight with my headscarf.”
In Germany, the wearing of the headscarf tends to be widely accepted on the grounds of religious freedom.