Mariam Farid is training to become a champion kickboxer and challenging the role of women in Sydney’s Muslim community. Trevor Allen reports.
“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do,” wrote British journalist Walter Bagehot.
There are few who truly go out of their way to realise this, to defy stereotypes and cultural barriers like Mariam Farid.
Arriving at the Bulldog Gym in Parramatta on a chilly, late-September evening, she appears unremarkable. At about 160cm tall, she hardly has the imposing stature of her trainer, Tim Fisher. She wears her regular work clothes and her black hair is tied into a ponytail.
But Mariam Farid leads a double life. By day, the 23 year old is a social worker at Westmead Hospital. By night, she trains as a Muay Thai kickboxer.
Entering the gym, she dons a t-shirt and shorts. Although she does not have the muscle definition of her male counterparts, she has the steely determination evident in all top prize-fighters. “I’ve gotta train hard for my next fight in October,” she says. “It’s not gonna be easy and I’ve gotta lose six kilos to make the weight.”
Farid has won all three of her amateur bouts. She is dedicated to her intense training regime, working out for three hours every weeknight as she builds towards her goal of becoming a national champion.
But there is another side to her story. Farid is a proud Muslim and came to Australia as a refugee in 1996 after fleeing the Taliban. She lived in Herat with her parents, grandmother, two sisters and brother. Her mother was a teacher at the local school and her father was the manager of a construction firm.
As the provincial capital and Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Herat is a hive of activity. After the Soviets left, the city was captured by the Taliban as its grip tightened across the country. With the Taliban’s brutal rule came drastic changes to Farid’s life.
“I remember everything from that time,” she says.
“Girls were banned from going to school, women needed male escorts and there were regular public killings in the soccer stadium. It was terrible.”
One particularly chilling experience has remained with her since she was 10 years old.
“I was with my dad riding a bike on the way to the video store near our house. As we approached the square, all of a sudden we were thrown to the ground, as a bomb had just exploded very close to us. There was blood everywhere and my father was hit with a small piece of shrapnel in his mouth.”
Apart from scratches and bruises, Farid and her father escaped unharmed but others nearby were killed by the blast.
In 1997, her father took the family on vacation to Iran. Whilst there, he received a phone call from relatives living in Australia. He was told it was too dangerous to return to Afghanistan and he should flee. He wanted a better life for his children so the family boarded a plane for Sydney.
“It was quite a shock,” she says.
“I never got to say goodbye to my extended family in Herat. They said, ‘No, don’t go!’ but my father wanted us to have an education, which we couldn’t get in Afghanistan.”
In Sydney, she attended intensive English classes, completed high school and now studies social work at university.
So, how does she transform from social worker to kickboxer?
“I’m not an aggressive person,” she says.
“When I step in the ring, I just concentrate on what I’ve learned from Tim. But it’s just a sport to me. I do it for fun.”
In Australia, less than one per cent of Muay Thai kickboxers are women, and there is a fledgling circuit for female fighters in Sydney. Bouts are mainly held at local RSL Clubs as the undercard to big professional fights.
Farid discovered the sport partly by accident.
“I used to do regular training at another gym where Tim was also a trainer, but I found regular gym work boring,” she says. “So when Tim opened a new gym three years ago, I began kickboxing. It’s been really tough but Tim has been a great teacher. And you have to be very disciplined.”
The ancient martial art is Thailand’s national sport. Practitioners claim it was developed by Siamese soldiers, more than 2000 years ago, as an unarmed combat method in case they lost their weapons in battle. Thai locals nicknamed the sport the “Art of Eight Limbs” because fighters attack with eight points of contact: punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes. They compete bare-foot and with little protective clothing other than specialised boxing gloves and groin protection.
Preparing for the upcoming fight, Farid’s routine consists of skipping, push-ups, sit-ups, circuit training and kicking and punching technique training.
Her trainer, Tim Fisher, says: “When I first met Mariam, she was very quiet and reserved. Now she has so much confidence, it’s amazing… she’s very tenacious.”
Sparring is also an integral part of Farid’s training and she is unfazed by her male counterparts.
“At first they’re a little hesitant to hit me, but when I hit them, they’re like ‘Oh, OK. She’s pretty good,’ so they start punching a lot harder.”
“I had my nose broken during one session. There was blood streaming down my face and I had to get Tim to crack it back into place,” laughs Farid.
“My parents still don’t know about that one!”
She says although her parents support her, they still have not seen her fight. “My sister comes to my fights and texts them the results. When my parents see the trophies I bring home, they’re very impressed.”
Although Farid is in every other sense, a typical Muslim woman living in Sydney, she displays no signs of being religious.
“Although…I don’t wear a hijab [traditional head scarf for Muslim women], I don’t think it’s just the external that counts,” she says. “I think you have to feel it on the inside. I was born Muslim and I am Muslim.”
And what would her life be like if she had remained in Afghanistan?
“I’d probably be married by now. With kids!” she says.
Farid is a fighter – both in the literal and figurative sense. She is no stranger to community criticism. Muslim women can be frowned upon for doing any activities considered masculine, especially contact sports. In response to a story in a local newspaper, a reader condemned her for kickboxing. But Farid is unconcerned by such reactions and receives Facebook messages of support from the local youth.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. It hasn’t stopped me from doing what I love doing. So I just ignore it – it just flies over my head.”