Ruqsana Begum: The world champion overcoming obstacles for Muslim women in sport

Begum opens up on the barriers she's had to break as a Muslim woman in order to become world champion...

Ruqsana Begum still can't believe she became a kickboxing world champion

Born into a strictly religious family, Begum has had to overcome so much to carve out her niche in both sport and life.

The former kickboxer who began boxing at the age of 35, has overcome mental health struggles and continues to battle against chronic fatigue syndrome.

She took up Muay Thai Kickboxing as a teenager but kept it secret from her family for years, and it would be her struggles that ultimately drove her to return to the sport and break down barriers for Muslim women in martial arts.

"Once I discovered the sport, I would wake up extra early on a Sunday morning, help my mum do all the house chores, and I'd ask her very nicely if I could attend the gym, just to go for a run or something on a treadmill, and she would feel bad, and she would say 'ok just go for like an hour and make sure you are home at this time," Begum told Sky Sports.

"Little did she know that I was coming to this kickboxing gym, so I managed to keep it a secret from them for around four to five years."

Coming from a religious family, Begum said that she initially felt guilty as she couldn't wear a hijab while engaging in martial arts training and competition.

"There was a constant conflict between my faith and my values and how I had been brought up, but later on I realised it is all about your intention rather than what your piece of clothing is," Begum, who has launched her own range of sports hijabs, said.

Begum found herself pressed into an arranged marriage at the age of 22 and in 2006 she fell into a deep depression and after suffering a breakdown moved back into her parents' house.

Back on the path to kickboxing glory

At the behest of her parents, Begum went back to the gym and set herself on the path to becoming a professional kickboxer.

"I was trying to be a good daughter," she said.

"I was trying to live up to everyone's expectation of me, and at that time I didn't quite know who I was, so we went ahead with the wedding and of course within nine months I went through depression, panic attacks, I completely lost my identity.

"Where I received my parents' blessing to come back to the gym, I just thought, well I'm going to take advantage of this now. They just want their daughter back, and I want myself back, I want to heal myself, and the sport gave me a lifeline."

With her kickboxing career on the up, Begum was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis better known as ME, a form of chronic fatigue syndrome.

"That was one of the biggest struggles of my life, that really debilitated me," Begum said of the condition.

Despite being almost unable to train or even complete her warm-ups ahead of her WKA world title fight against Sweden's Susanna Salmijarvi in 2016, Begum convinced trainer Bill Judd to let her get in the ring, and she would walk out as the champion after a gruelling bout.

"We went to the changing room, and I couldn't even last a warm-up, and Bill said he doesn't feel comfortable with this. I said to him give me two minutes, one round, I can knock her out in the first thirty seconds, and we can all go home. The fight went the distance, but I just dug deep," Begum said of winning the World Kickboxing Association 48kg world title.

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A role model and icon

Begum is delighted to be a role model for so many young women and girls and a British sports hero but finds the experience surreal.

"I receive so many messages; I feel quite overwhelmed if I'm honest," Begum confessed.

"My story can help others to see there is always light at the end of the tunnel. I still can't believe I managed to do that, did I really become world champion? When I look back, and I think it's incredible, a little girl from East London, becoming a world champion is still disbelief for me."

Begum says that her parents are now really proud of her because she has remained steadfast in her faith while competing as an elite athlete overcoming numerous obstacles along the way.

"I think they are really proud now," Begum said when asked what her parents now think of her career choice.

"I haven't compromised on my faith or my values in order to pursue a sport and that for me is a huge thing to be able to bridge that gap between being western and being proud to be British. It has been an amazing journey."

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