“I don’t like violence,” says Reema Aburahma, “I’m so girly!”
But the 22-year-old from Gaza City quickly goes on to explain why she has become a fighter, “I like how it feels when I punch,” she told CNN Sport.
“I feel stronger, more brave, more powerful. That’s what I love about boxing,” adds Aburahma, who spoke to CNN earlier this year, before the recent uptick in the violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.
She discovered the noble art almost by accident, but with every hook and jab, Aburahma is now on a mission to change the world around her; boxing has become her rallying cry to Arab women and females everywhere.
Having graduated with a degree in English and French literature from Al Azhar University, Gaza, Aburahma has struggled to find work, and she’s not very optimistic about the prospects for either her generation or the next in the narrow Palestinian territory which has been subjected to Israel and Egypt’s crippling blockade since 2007.
Under the blockade, Israel and Egypt regulates civilian movement and the import of basic goods into Gaza. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace, its naval borders and most of its land frontiers – Egypt participates in the land blockade by restricting movement through the enclave’s Rafah border crossing in the south.
The territory is just under 140 square miles in size, but home to nearly two million people. That’s roughly the same size as Detroit, but with nearly three times the population.
Israeli officials say these measures are necessary to prevent armed groups from smuggling weapons or carrying out attacks on Israel. Palestinians say the measures are violent and oppressive.
CNN interviewed Aburahma about her boxing passion before the latest round of violence between Gaza militants and Israel this May. At least 256 Palestinians were killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, which is governed by Hamas. Twelve civilians in Israel were killed by Hamas rockets, according to Israeli officials.
Israel’s bombing campaign wreaked havoc in Gaza, destroying scores of residential buildings and wiping out whole families, according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health.
Speaking to CNN amongst the recovery work following the latest round of violence, Aburahma says, “There is no other option. We have to keep living. We have to rebuild it again and again until one day, maybe, we can be free.”
Aburahma knows people who’ve tried to escape Gaza in search of a better life, one of them her friend who drowned at sea, but she doesn’t believe that giving up on her homeland is the answer.
“We like Gaza and we like our friends and family here. And we would like to make a change for the better. The situation is very bad. But if we run away, who is going to solve these problems?”
‘Boxing is like blood in my body’
When she was just two years old, conflict in Gaza forced Aburahma’s family to move into the Shabura Refugee Camp in Rafah.
Her early memories of any kind of sporting activity were playing games in the streets. By the time she had turned four, her family was able to find a better life and they relocated to Gaza City.
Her sister played football and Aburahma took up Dabke – a traditional folk dance. She says there wasn’t much emphasis on sport at school, but she would sometimes lift weights at the gym and tried other activities, but nothing ever really stuck.
Everything changed, though, when she stumbled across a video clip of Osama Ayob on Facebook last year, training girls how to box.
Aburahma was intrigued and called him up, asking if he would teach her, too. Word got around and 10 other girls went along with her to try it out; now, it’s a team of around 45 boxers in two small locations, ranging in age from seven to 35 – children, teenagers, young adults and mothers. It is the first – and only – all-women’s boxing team in Gaza.
“Boxing is like blood in my body,” Ayob told CNN. “I have loved boxing since I was a little kid; I adore it. I taught my sons and my daughters boxing, even my wife.”
Ayob boxed all over the Arab world and when he returned to Gaza in 2013, he started introducing the sport to Palestinian women, initially outdoors on the beach – in public – an attempt to normalize a combat sport in a strict, conservative society.
“One of the biggest challenges I had was the way the society is looking at those girls,” Ayob recalled. “People would say look at those girls, what they are doing instead of being at home beside their mothers. We changed the way the society is looking at those girls.” The coach says that if he had enough space, he would already have 100 girls training.
While boxing seems to be a popular new choice for some women in Gaza, some of those heading to the gym and lacing up their gloves have been made well aware of the resistance to it.
“Many people called the coach and threatened him,” said Aburahma, “They told him to stop or they would do bad things to him.
“The girls were afraid at first; the coach was afraid. He asked us not to post anything [on social media] for a while.” She lists all the things that were said about women boxing in Gaza: “She’s going to be violent; she’s going to look like a man; you look stupid, you look ugly.”
She said some blog commentors even talked about circulating the names of the boxers so that nobody would marry them in the future, “by mistake.”
“It’s actually kind of funny to read something like, ‘We don’t want to marry these guys.’ It’s like, ‘What made you think that we want to marry someone like you, with this kind of mentality?”
According to a 2019 Violence Survey conducted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 29% of currently or ever-married women reported some kind of violence (psychological, physical, sexual, social or economic) by their husbands in the previous 12 months, and the violence was much more prevalent in Gaza than in the West Bank – 38% to 24%
More recent reports have revealed why there might be an even greater urgency for women to learn self-defense. As domestic tensions have increased during the pandemic, cases of femicide have spiked.
The Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling documented 37 cases in 2020, compared to 21 the previous year. Their research of femicide over a three-year period revealed that most of the victims were below the age of 29 and the perpetrators were brothers, husbands, fathers and even sons.
A report by UN Women concluded in 2018 that 50% of Palestinian women and 63% of Palestinian men agreed that a woman should tolerate violence in order to keep the family together.
Aburahma knows how it feels to be vulnerable, although she hadn’t necessarily pieced all the elements of her own story together until she was sharing it with CNN.
“We are in a society that is not used to seeing girls out in the streets at night, girls who look like me,” she explained. “One night, at about 8 or 9 o’clock, a man followed me, and I was really scared. I wasn’t strong, I couldn’t defend myself; so I had to call my father. When he saw that, he ran; he was a coward. But I don’t want to be afraid.”
Four times in her life – in 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021 – she’s witnessed conflict in Gaza, sometimes perilously close. She says she’s seen military tanks in her neighborhood, missiles in the sky, buildings exploding and bodies flying through the air. She remembers her cousin being shot in the shoulder and her aunt crying in the street, and she remembers cowering in terror, thinking she was going to die.
When she was 10 years old, Israeli ground troops moved into Gaza as part of Operation Cast Lead. One night, her family had to evacuate in their pajamas, and when they returned home several weeks later, they realized how lucky they had been to survive.
“There were many shots [bullet holes] in our house and my bed was damaged. It is under the window and the glass had shattered. So that made me cry a lot; if I was sleeping, I would have died.”
Israel says it launched the 2008 operation to stop militant groups from firing rockets into southern Israel. More than 1,400 Palestinians died, according to officials in Gaza. The Israeli military says 1,166 people were killed, and that more than half were militants.
At such a tender age, Aburahma was realizing – albeit subconsciously – that she would need to learn how to stand up for herself. “The idea that my father can protect me from anything started to end because I realized – at 10 years old – there are things that are bigger than us, bigger than my father. He can’t protect us from everything.”
When asked how she thought the experience of war had shaped her as a person, Aburahma concluded: “I’ve always felt the need to protect myself. I thought this is because of the boy who followed me in the street or because of the society, the harassment I had because of being a woman. But you made me realize that war might have been a part of this feeling. But I’m only realizing this right now.”
Coach Ayob showed CNN how some of the equipment in the gym has been repurposed from everyday materials.
“I had mattresses at home; I cut them and made [punching blocks] out of them. This bag as well is made of very simple material.” Much of it is held together with parcel tape; the 14-year blockade has made professional equipment hard to come by.
He says he’d welcome assistance in order to improve and expand: “I cannot train 40 to 50 girls in eight meters square. I need someone to support us financially, so we can improve to the level of the other international teams.”
The women’s team might be pioneering, but they’re still an outlier in Gaza society: they can’t compete in local championships, as the boys and men would.
Aburahma adds that some of the girls in the team have expressed interest in becoming professional boxers and competing internationally, but the hope of anybody doing that depends on outside aid, a sponsor – somebody to pay for passports and travel, not to mention decent equipment and uniforms.
“I am afraid that one day these younger girls are going to grow up and they’re not going to find another woman to box,” she said, explaining her motive to keep growing the sport at home.
“For me personally, I did not dream of participating in championships or becoming very professional in boxing, but I dream of becoming a boxing coach because a lot of girls choose not to join our team because we have a male coach. I need to respect this, but at the same time, I want girls to be strong and to practice this kind of sport.
“I’ll try to become a good boxer in order to help other women. I believe in empowering them and giving them the opportunity to become stronger. I believe in the idea; I believe in women.”
The gyms may be small, and the facilities may be spartan, but for the girls and women who have joined up, it’s a sanctuary, a safe place to express themselves and channel their emotions.
Nesma Abu Shammala, an 18-year-old university student, told CNN, “My favorite thing about boxing is that I can discharge the negative energy that I have and be empty of stress, anxiety and nervousness. It makes me feel full of positive energy.”
A glimpse inside reveals some heavy hitting, working on bags or sparring with pads. Girls as young as seven years old are going at it; others practice balancing on an old tire or trying to jab at tennis balls or plastic bottles attached to a string.
Aburahma has tied her hair up into a high ponytail and is dressed in an all-black tracksuit. Her bright red gloves are pounding away on the pads, her diminutive frame dwarfed by the coach.
One girl is playfully dancing to the music, uninhibited, enjoying the laughter and encouragement from the others; there are fist bumps and supportive gestures and hugs for the younger fighters.
“I always say that sport changes lives,” explains Aburahma, “If it changes lives step by step, it can make a huge change in the world. I’ve experienced that sport changes the way of thinking. It makes people more open and more positive, more open to change and more open to accept the differences of other people.”
She details the range of social and cultural backgrounds of the boxers and how their involvement is changing more than just the narrative on the Arab woman’s place in the world.
“I’ve experienced girls from conservative families, girls who had a hard time convincing their parents. When they came, they saw these other girls who do not dress like them, who do not think like them, have different backgrounds and different families.
“Step by step, they all became friends. So, if this sport could change the mentality of someone who was determined that girls are not allowed to do something violent or to dress like this or be friends with people like this, that is a huge thing.”
As word of their boxing team has traveled, the curiosity has drawn media and interview requests. At first, it was fun, but now many of the girls just want to get on with it and train.
Aburahma says she won’t let them. “I tell them that sometimes we need to do it for other women, not for us.” The significance of the team’s existence has become much bigger than any of the individuals involved.
In conclusion, she expressed the value of their mission, namely that there is much more to Gaza than the stereotype of life in a repressed and troubled land: “There are strong women there, women who dance, who play music, who box, who play football, tennis, very successful and very powerful women.
“And this is kind of our duty, to spread this image about us, to let people know that we are not only victims of wars and religion. And we do not only exist and live in this miserable life; no, we fight. We are strong and we try to find a positive aspect of life and to help us forget and get through these hard times.”