USA Boxing was contacted by Sarah O’Keefe, the mother of aspiring Muslim boxer Amaiya Zafar, more than a week ago, asking that the Minnesota teenager be allowed to compete at a Duluth boxing event wearing Islamic attire.

O’Keefe and company wouldn’t take no for an answer, and with the backing of a national civil rights and advocacy group, came out swinging this week.

“We don’t have another option,” said O’Keefe, of Oakdale, Minn. “She is training hard, so she’ll be ready for when they say, ‘Yes.’ ”

Even though Zafar won’t compete in her first fight as part of the Back to School Duel 3 on Friday at Grandma’s Sports Garden - she never went through the process of signing up - the push to allow her to compete begged the larger question, according to Jaylani Hussein, Minnesota executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The heart of the issue is a clash between religious beliefs and rules ensuring safety and fair competition, some of which Hussein said are outdated and discriminatory.

“Once you know you already have this huge elephant in the room, it’s probably good to address that immediately,” Hussein said. “She has the intention that if she is allowed to compete, and the registration can still happen in time, great, or the next available boxing opportunity.”

Zafar, 15, wishes to compete in USA Boxing-sanctioned events wearing a hijab, or head scarf, as well as Under Armour clothing covering her arms and legs, in violation of International Boxing Association rules requiring a sleeveless vest and matching trunks that do not go below the knee.

“She would be wearing something covering her skin, not loose, and it would not be an advantage or a disadvantage to her boxing,” Hussein said. “What she is requesting is very small, minute changes to a uniform. I think it would be a small accommodation for those who choose to box where their faith would not be challenged or compromised.”

Mike Martino, interim executive director with USA Boxing, disagrees, saying if it was just a hijab, that would be one thing, but leggings and sleeves raise safety issues, possibly not allowing an official to see how hurt a fighter is, concerning bruises and cuts.

Martino compared it to beards, which can soften the blow from a hit, scratch eyes and conceal cuts. Some have fought to overturn the beard ban, and threatened lawsuits, but nothing ever came from it.

“There are 196 countries that have amateur boxing. Many of them are Muslim,” Martino said. “All the Muslim countries are following the same rules. So while we have an issue in the United States, it’s an issue that has to be standardized.”

Hussein, citing changes to international rules dropping hijab bans in soccer and basketball, said changes to boxing could open up the sport to thousands of Muslims. He disagreed with the beard comparison.

“Beards are not the same as modest dress for women,” Hussein said. “There are men who can’t grow beards, and it’s not something religion must require. There are a lot of individuals who wear their beard as part of their faith, but it’s not the same as modesty in clothing.

“This is something that hasn’t been solved. It’s being raised again. This is someone who has trained, has a love for the sport, but obviously sees a challenge in participating in a public setting if she is forced to remove clothes that would be modest to her. It would be a small change, and a welcome change.”

USA Boxing is working with Zafar, possibly to grant her a waiver to be allowed to fight. Martino said the U.S. Olympic Committee is involved. USA Boxing will write a letter to the International Boxing Association requesting a rule change be considered.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can for her, but on the other hand, we have an obligation to follow our rules, the same standards 30,000 amateur boxers in the United States are held accountable to,” Martino said. “It is something that needs to be addressed, obviously, but there’s not this sense of urgency they were asking. Turns out, she was never competing.”

Zach “Jungle Boy” Walters, the former Duluth boxer turned promoter, is the matchmaker for Friday’s event and said he never heard of Zafar. He said matches are made through talks with other coaches, trying to ensure competitive fights and the development of both fighters.

“I don’t weigh in on the issues surrounding decisions on what people wear into the ring,” Walters said. “That would be a decision made by USA Boxing. Whatever they require my boxers to wear, I have them wear.”

Zafar, meanwhile, just wants to box.

Zafar has been training for two years, starting out at White Bear Boxing Club before moving to Sir Cerresso Fort Boxing and Fitness in St. Paul this summer.

“It’s her passion. All day, every day,” O’Keefe said. “She gets done with her schoolwork, so she can watch videos and can train. She loves the sport, just loves it, and it’s a really big thing for a 15-year-old to have such a passion.”

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