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Ruqsana: It took me 30 years to learn who I am

Homo Sapiens

Feb 3, 2015

Ruqsana: It took me 30 years to learn who I am​

Ruqsana spoke about the challenges she has had to face in an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune

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After conquering kickboxing, Bangladeshi origin British boxer Ruqsana Begum has turned her attention to professional boxing in a bid to become champion in two different sports (photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune)

Shishir Hoque
Published: March 24, 2023 9:20 PM | Last Updated: March 24, 2023 10:08 PM

Bangladesh-origin British fighter Ruqsana Begum is no stranger to adversity, having trained against the will of her parents and without their knowledge for years. Nicknamed “Born Fighter,” She took the sporting world by storm when she was called up to the Great Britain team and claimed the World Kickboxing Association title, and then switched to professional boxing in a bid to become world champion in two different sports. Before winning the Intercontinental Championship in her debut bout in Bangladesh, Ruqsana spoke about the challenges she has had to face, including arranged marriage, in an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune's Shishir Hoque.

You grew up in one of the most secular societies while living with a conservative family. How did it impact your life and thoughts?
I was born in the 1980s and life in Britain was different than now. Now it is very modern and Bangladeshi people are very open minded. Being Muslim, Bangladeshi, Asian, and female, there were lots of restrictions going on. One of my fondest memories was coming to Bangladesh at the age of two with my grandfather, who came to Bangladesh to build a house. So, that's my earliest memory in Bangladesh and I was here for nearly nine months. I have very lovely and happy memories.

Growing up in England, it was complete in terms of finding your identity because on one hand, I'm British and I'm modern. On the other hand, I'm traditional because of my family as they have Bangladeshi background. They have an Islamic side, which doesn't collaborate with everyone. Every identity has its own strong value. It was very difficult to learn who I was and it took a long time, until I was 30. This is who I am. I'm Bangladeshi, I'm British, I'm proud, I'm Muslim.

Which sport did you play initially? Was there any restriction?
Growing up in school, I was always the fastest girl. I knew I was good at sports from a very young age, but it was also unheard of for someone from my background to participate in sports. There were hardly any Muslim women playing sports. There was very limited space in sports. I used to love playing football. As soon as I became 10/11, my mom didn't let me go out to play with the boys. She said, “you stay home, you help mom.” I used to become upset during the holidays, because I wanted to go out with my friends and play. But my mom was most strict. She wanted me to study and help her in the kitchen.

Did you watch any sports with your parents?
Not that much, but yes, football. My dad used to watch football with my brothers. My grandfather used to like snooker and my uncle used to watch a lot of Bruce Lee. I did grow up watching sports. I still love watching sports.

Has it ever happened that you didn't like something about your parents but couldn't say anything?
I don't think there was anything because now I'm 39 and, if I look back, I think my parents always had the best interest of the family. Obviously, when you are a young girl, you think why isn't your mom allowing you to play with the boys. They did the best thing, they thought good for me. I'm privileged and I'm proud that my parents have been very understanding.

In most families in Bangladesh, girls are not allowed to play sports with the boys. Was it the same in London?
It's in London as well. You have lots of modern families and it's changing now. But still, in 50-60% Bangladeshi families, or maybe even more, the girls are not allowed.

Ruqsana, representing both United Kingdom and Bangladesh, on her way to the boxing ring for her clash against Tanjila (photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune)

What was the reaction of your parents when they heard you are a kickboxer?
It was a difficult one, because I didn't tell them at first. I was in university, but I was afraid to tell them because I thought if I informed them, they wouldn't let me go to the gym. I still trained once a week. I had an arranged marriage, which put me into depression and that's when I told my parents. I needed to go back to the gym to heal myself. At that point, they realized that it was healthy for me to do gym. My dad was very understanding when my doctor explained to him. Then he let me get back to the gym. My parents were very kind during that time. Within a year, I got selected for Great Britain. I was representing United Kingdom at World Championship. I was 24 and I told my parents (about kickboxing). They were happy because they wanted me to be healthy and doing well.

What is your take on arranged marriage?
I think it is people's individual choice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. For me, it didn't work. I don't think it's a bad thing. Some people are very happy having an arranged marriage. It's a personal choice.

How did you become Muay Thai world champion?
I first won a bronze medal and I realized I'm going up against some tough countries in the world. There were like 150 countries competing at the World Championship, and I came back with a bronze. I realized I have something special, and I came back with gold from European Championship in Latvia in 2012. Then I became world champion in 2016.

Why did you choose kickboxing?
I loved sports when I was young. I remember being fascinated by martial arts from the age of five/six. I always watched Bruce Lee on TV and was intrigued. This is where my love for martial arts came from. Later on, I went to school, and I discovered kickboxing. I did this once after school, and I fell in love with it. I was good at it. It's like the sport chose me, and I chose the sport.

Photo Credit: eyevine

How was your early experience, for instance, your first days in practice?
It was really good because I was so young. For me it was like a blessing. I just loved this sport. I was very motivated and keen. My first experience was, I loved the fitness and energy. I loved this skill. I loved the philosophy. Especially, I learned the eastern values. I learned about Buddhist culture and Bhutanese art. So, there were many positives.

Since your first visit at the age of two, how many times have you been to Bangladesh?
Maybe two other times. When I was seven, it was the summer holidays. We came and my dad put me in a school in Sylhet (Blue Bird). I remember I wore a uniform to go to school. I remember attending drawing classes (laughs). We were there for six weeks. Then I came back again when I was 16. At that time, my grandfather was ill. That's why my parents came to Bangladesh.

You have been representing United Kingdom at international competitions. Have you ever thought of representing Bangladesh?
I only had a British passport. My selection was straightway British. I would have to apply for Bangladeshi passport, but I didn't really know how to do this. When I went to gym and got selected for Great Britain, that was automatic. I'm proud to be British-Bangladeshi because I feel like I'm making a difference in my community. I'm inspiring a generation of Bangladesh and England because a lot of people are not sure about their identity and it's important to know that you can be British as well as a Bangladeshi.

Which fight would you call the best of your career?
It was in the European Championship, and I had two hard fights against Finland and Turkey. I won gold. I didn't have a coach. I had no one. I had a teammate who was injured. That was a very powerful moment for me to realize I have a gift that God gave me. I believed in myself because I have got something special.

Ruqsana evades a punch from Bangladesh's Tanjila during their 10-round faceoff at the Beximco XBC Fight Night in Dhaka last Tuesday ((photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune)

Why did you switch to boxing from kickboxing?
That was around four and a half years ago. I started professional boxing because I became a world champion in kickboxing and then I realized there is nothing more to achieve here. I also realized I could make a difference by inspiring people, like I remember Mary Kom who inspired the Asian boys, and we don't have a female and that's why I thought I have to do this because this is more than for just me now.

In boxing, you drew your first fight and lost the next two before tasting victory. Talk us through this phase.
It was amazing. I think I got cheated in the first fight, which I should have won but they didn't give it to me. I should have won the third fight also. Boxing is very complicated. It's up to the judges. Sometimes, they don't see everything. Sometimes, they have favorites. It's tough. Sometimes, you experience racism. There are lots of things. But I'm grateful that I have turned everything around.

From being a kickboxing champion, you had to wait till your fourth bout to register a win in boxing. How did you deal with the setbacks?
On the journey to become a champion, you will face setbacks and failure because it is part of sports. This is part of life. You learn and grow from your experiences. It's very important that when you fail you learn how to get back up, because this is the real essence of being a true champion.

Do you have any target in boxing?
I want to be a champion again. To become world champion in two different sports is a big deal and that's my goal.

What is the best lesson you have learned from life?
The best lesson I would say is to put God first and to know who you are because if you know yourself you know God.

Tell us about your new book…
My book is called ‘Born Fighter'. It's an autobiography of my journey in becoming the first British-Muslim world champion. I talked about the obstacles I faced. It's a universal story. Anyone can relate to it. I talked about passion, panic attacks, becoming champion, fatigue, best friends, encountering bullies. These are things most people face in life. I think it can help so many people. That's why I have written it.

Your story is very inspiring. Is there anyone whose story inspired you?
It was hard growing up because you don't have any role model. I think my grandfather (Osman Ali) inspired me because he served three jobs and had a family in Bangladesh. He took care of the family members in London and Bangladesh. I was always very inspired by him.

Is he the first one in the family who went to England?
Yes. He fought for the British army during World War II. He came to England first, then my parents. Then I was born in England.

Ruqsana celebrates after clinching the WBU Intercontinental Championship title in the flyweight category (photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune)

You are an athlete, architect, writer, and so on. Which one do you own the most?
My passion is always in sports. I love what I am doing now. I published my autobiography because I wanted to share my story with the world to inspire people and make a difference. Right now, I'm more focused on my sports. I'm also writing my second book and working on a film. My book will hopefully become a film soon. I also got inspired by the Mary Kom story – how she went to the Olympics representing India and a film was made about her. It was a great and inspiring story, which really excited me.

Speaking of your stay in Bangladesh this time, how has the interaction been with the fans?
It's such an honor for me to be back in Bangladesh. To participate in the Intercontinental Championship is about representing my community and coming back to my roots and really showcasing the talents that Bangladesh has. The young girls would see me on TV, and they did come to meet me when I was doing a book signing the other day. It makes difference when they see me. They also wanted to be champions.

Do you follow any other sports?
I love sports in general. I love athletics. I love playing football. I like cricket as well. Bangladesh is good at cricket.

Bangladesh recently whitewashed England 3-0 in Twenty20 cricket series…
I know they beat England. We are really proud of the cricket team. One of my sisters plays cricket all the time in England. We are a cricket loving family. My dad also loves cricket. The Bengali community is very proud of their success. This is where I would like the community to be behind me as well because I'm the first female Bangladeshi origin athlete to become a world champion. I want to be accepted like the cricket team.

Have you watched the Bangladesh women's football team?
I heard our women's football team are doing exceptional things and they are so well received by Bangladeshi people.

There are still many girls in Bangladesh who face struggles to play sports, like you encountered at young age. Do you have anything to say to them?
I think if you like any sport or activity or have passion in life, always pursue it because the moment you take the first step the next step will open up. You have to be persistent and resilient, and never give up. I had many obstacles and there were times I cried, was half-broken and disappointed, and had setbacks, but I did not give up and God opened the door for me.


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