The first four days are the hardest. Definitely.
Every year I spend a month fasting and training. As you may know, Muslims all over the world are observing Ramadan. A big part of it is that, between sunrise and sunset, you don’t eat or drink. Now, doing boxing sessions without food is not ideal, but if you take your foot off the gas for a month, it can take like six months to get your fitness back. That’s something I cannot really afford. So I’m still training twice a day.
Some people wonder how this is possible. They’ll go, “Not even water?!” They always get astounded by that.
They also wonder whether it gets harder the longer you fast. Actually, it’s the other way around, because at the start you have no sense of balance. For the first four or five days, when the sun goes down, all you want to do is stuff your face. Then you forget to drink properly, and you wake up the next day without the right hydration to train. But as time progresses, it’s like with any sport: You get better at it.
Basically you’re supposed to wake up about half an hour before sunrise to eat and drink, although this is optional. For me, I choose sleeping over waking up, because as an athlete sleep is so important. When I get up, I do my prayers (you have to pray five times a day). Then I’ll have a light training session with my husband, Richard, who is also my coach.
“Not even water?!” They always get astounded by that.
Obviously, it’s quite hard to fast and do strength work, because you need food to lift heavy. But you can still do cardio, like pad work. Rich is also Muslim, so he’s fasting with me, which is good — it would be really hard if I saw him eat and drink in front of me! About an hour before we break fast, we do our toughest session. That way I can give everything, and then my muscles can get the nutrients they need to recover straight away. After sunset, I eat as many calories as I can. And, save for a couple of rest days, that’s me every day for the month.
The funny thing is that, when you’ve been fasting all day, you can eat anything. The other day our food got burnt, but we all thought, Ahh, this is amazing. If it had been a normal day, we would probably have gone, Hmm, this isn’t that good, is it?
One drawback, though, is that you can’t train with the usual intensity. Two weeks ago, Rich and I went down to the car park below our building to do pad work. We had planned to do 12 rounds, but we both got so dizzy that we had to call it quits after six. Sometimes the lack of food and water means you just cannot push through.
Some people might read this and wonder, Why is she putting herself through this? Actually, I have at least four good reasons.
So, let me explain to you what Ramadan means to me.
1 . Ramadan brings people together.
This is the only time in the year that our family gathers. There’s Richard, the person who has shaped my life more than anything. I know that sounds well cheesy. Like, Oh my God, I can’t believe she’s saying that. But with him everything is just easier.
Usually we’ll gather with all my family members from across London, and one of my three brothers will drive down from Birmingham. Obviously this year is a bit different because of COVID-19 — my parents are both in the high-risk category, so I absolutely cannot see them. But in a normal year we’ll break fast together every day and talk about the things we’re thankful for. We are definitely very thankful for each other. I grew up in a house with so much love, and I know my brothers and my two sisters feel the same way. My dad used to work as a teacher in Somalia, but when we came to London he took a job in construction just so that he could put food on the table. My mum made sure we were well fed and got a good education. Normally, I see her once a week. She always tells me, “Be careful, be safe.” And then she’ll add, “Oh, and don’t get too skinny!”
Haha! She doesn’t understand that boxing is a sport with weight classes, you know? She might even tell Richard, “Do you like your wife being this skinny?”
My mum is the reason I know about our journey from Somalia to London, which took place in the early ’90s, when I was about a year old. I don’t know for sure exactly how old I am, because I was born at the start of the Civil War, when nobody in Somalia was tracking birth certificates. My mum never really spoke to me about the journey until Richard sat down with her one day and asked what had happened. I’d heard bits and pieces before, but until then I hadn’t known how gruesome and gritty and dark it all was.
She used to say that Somalia had once been a tourist hot spot, but that once the war broke out it wasn’t a safe place to be. When one of my brothers was killed by a bomb, my parents decided that it was too dangerous for us to stay. We spent eight days on a boat to Kenya. We were seven — me, my parents, my brothers and my sisters — plus extended family. When I picture it now, I can see a wooden boat moving through the dark waters, and me crying, because my mum said I cried a lot. We were about 500 people in a boat that had room for 200. We were licking sugar in order to stay alive.
I don’t know for sure exactly how old I am, because I was born at the start of the Civil War, when nobody in Somalia was tracking birth certificates.
When we got to Kenya, my parents saved up for a year so that we could fly to the U.K. And that’s what saved us. When she told us all of this, I remember realising just how much my parents have done so that I can be here. My dad has sacrificed so much in order to provide for us.
And my mum … she’s a fighter. A better one than I’ll ever be.
2 . Ramadan is a way to show your faith.
I have been observing Ramadan since I was a little girl. It’s important to me, because it hasn’t always been easy for me to show my faith.
When we came to the U.K. we settled down in East London. I grew up in an area with lots of cultures and ethnicities, which was amazing. But this one time, when I was about 11 years old — I haven’t told this story to anyone, except Richard (not even my mum knows it) — I was walking home from Quran studies, wearing a hijab. Suddenly a gang of neighbourhood kids came on their bikes. Since I’m not as dark-skinned as other Somalis, they thought I was Pakistani. So they pulled my hijab off and said, “You Paki.”
It made me feel so heartbroken. I went home and told my mum that I didn’t want to do Quran studies anymore, just because of that one incident. But I didn’t tell her what had happened. I just said, “Mum, I’m too old.”
She said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “I’m too old. I can’t go back. All the kids are too young.”
I just made stuff up. I never wanted to put the hijab on ever again. And I probably haven’t till this day, apart from on religious days, like Eid, when we go to the mosque. I still feel quite scared to put it back on. I couldn’t defend myself back then, whereas now I’d probably hit them and, you know, I’d end up going to jail or something like that. And I just don’t want to be put in that position ever again.
I must say that I haven’t experienced any racism since then. Nor has my mum, or my sisters, who both wear hijabs. That’s why London is amazing: It’s so understanding, so multicultural. But growing up as a Somali here was still difficult for me.
Especially because of what was going on in school.
When I was about eight, I was a shy and timid kid. My elementary school was in an area where most of the kids were white. I had kinky hair, I was black. I was also quite chubby. I didn’t feel like I fit in. And I didn’t really like myself. I wanted to be skinny and have straight hair, like all the girls in my class — which was probably down to the ads on TV. Like, everyone I saw on TV had straight hair, light skin and skinny bodies. Today you have sportswear for curvy girls, you have girls like me working as ambassadors for big shampoo companies. Back then you’d never see a girl with my kind of hair doing that. So, yeah … I felt lonely. I had love at home, but outside I felt sad.
At one point I actually claimed not to be Somali. When people in school asked me where I was from, I’d make stuff up.
I’d say, “Oh, I’m mixed.”
“What are you mixed with?”
And then I’d make up something different every time, because I couldn’t remember the lie I had told before.
I just made stuff up. I never wanted to put the hijab on ever again.
Being Somali was a bit of a diss. Do you know what I mean? Like we were always the ones who “smelled” the most. We’d smell of home cooking: Our clothes would be steeped in oil and spices and powders. So I’d always make sure to close my bedroom when my mum was cooking. We’d also get dissed for being quite dark-skinned. There were just so many things that kids were mean about.
Another problem was lunch. I’d get packed lunches from my mum with rice and meat, and everyone else would come with their crisps and their cute little sandwiches. Then they would look at me because my food smelled. I remember feeling like, Why am I eating rice and meat? I want crisps. I want sandwiches.
So, yeah, that was a huge culture clash, for sure. But now I am proud to be Somali.
And Mum, you know I love your cooking. I always did.
3 . Ramadan builds character.
This might not be a very spiritual point, but, for me, as a boxer, fasting always reminds me that you can literally do anything if you put your mind to it. So, for example, if you’re doing abs and it starts to hurt, you can continue doing those abs if you tell yourself that you can. Everything is in the head. If you tell yourself, Tomorrow I’m gonna do two sessions, you can do it because you’ve already prepared your mind to do it.
Also, as a boxer you have to be mentally strong. There will come a time when you get hit so hard that you just want to stop. But you can’t, because this is the sport you have chosen.
I still remember the day I walked into a youth club near my house and saw these grunty, sweaty old men throwing jabs at each other. Grr! Grr! Then I did a boxercise session and thought, Wow, I love this. I want to continue doing this. I wasn’t very good to begin with. But then women’s boxing wasn’t really a thing back then. Most boxing coaches didn’t give a rat’s ass about women, even though my coach at the time was happy to take my money. Most of what I learned came through videos I found online, so I’ve pretty much taught myself.
It took me a number of years to reach a good standard. The moment I realised I could make something out of it was when I attended the London Olympics in 2012. I saw all these girls on the stage and thought, Wow, amazing … amazing that women are doing this.
Then I thought, I could probably try and do this myself.
My mum never wanted me to get into boxing. It’s like, we came from danger, so why on earth would you go back into something dangerous? A lot of African parents also want you to get a stable job, like as a doctor or lawyer or engineer, because Africa as a continent is not very stable. That’s why I did a law degree — to please my mum. It’s nothing that I ever enjoyed.
I hid boxing from my mum for a long time. I would tell her I was going to the gym, which was true … but then I would be boxing as well. She was none the wiser. She only found out when one of my brothers told her that he had seen me fight on a new boxing show on TV. She called a family intervention. My family gathered in my living room and said, “Ramla, you’ve got to stop boxing. It’s too dangerous. It’s taking away from your studies.”
And so I stopped, which was heartbreaking. I had always said that I was going to stop boxing when I fell out of love with it. I was still in love. The only way I can describe it is like … boxing is like a man that’s no good for you, and you break up with him, and you know he’s no good for you, but you still go back, hoping that maaaybe this time will be better. You know?
Six months later, I went back. Then I met Richard in a boxing gym in South London, and he made my mum see the beauty of boxing, and how much support I had in the community. That was the turning point for her, I think.
Now she’s my biggest fan. She has still only seen me fight on screen, though. Apart from my youngest brother, I’ve never had any of my senior family members come and watch me fight. Every time I go to a competition I’ll see people with their parents, brothers, sisters … and then I’ll look into the audience and realise that I don’t have anyone.
But my mum has now promised me that if I qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, she’ll come and watch me compete. That would mean everything to me.
4 . Ramadan spreads compassion.
The premise of fasting is to understand how those who are less fortunate feel on a daily basis.
It’s so amazing that there are people who are poor and have nothing, and they still fast. That’s the thing about Ramadan. It engages people from around the world and binds them together for this one month, if that makes sense.
Being a refugee myself has helped me to understand what others are going through. What’s really worrying is that, because of the financial problems that COVID-19 is causing, charities and NGOs might not be getting the same support that they usually do. I’m a High Profile Supporter of UNICEF, and I know they rely heavily on donations. I mean, I’m sure airlines and big businesses will get hit pretty bad. But I have been to refugee camps — most recently in Jordan in December — and to know that these people probably won’t be looked after in the same way is quite hard to comprehend.
At the end of the day, refugees are just people. They’re not trying to sneak into countries for the sake of sneaking into a country. They’re literally doing it to better their lives and the lives of their families. Many of them just want to survive.
I think things like the refugee crisis can make you forget what people from third-world countries can achieve. Women in particular. You have Halima Aden, who is paving the way for hijab-wearing girls in the modelling world. You have Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and who is now in the U.S. House of Representatives. For me, when I decided to represent Somalia as a boxer, I wanted to help change the perception of the country. Like, we’re not just a war-torn country. We’re a stable nation, a good nation. Don’t feel sorry for us. We’re actually doing amazing things.
I’d love to inspire a new generation of young girls in Africa — to show them that somebody from their background can do it, and so can they. They might not even have to get into sport. They can do something else. I just want to show them that they can dream bigger and be something more than someone’s housewife. To think that I can help them realise that is the best feeling in the world.
But none of them can do that without a safe home and enough to eat. And that is why compassion is so important. I know for sure that, if it wasn’t for charities and NGOs like UNICEF, who looked after me and my family in Kenya — and if it wasn’t also for the love that the U.K. showed us — I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t be alive today.
Now that we’re here in London, praying and fasting, I feel thankful. And once more, like every year, I am reminded of what Ramadan is really about. It’s about family, it’s about unity, and it’s about being together.
And that’s beautiful, I think.