Photo: Samera Ashraf

“Just get out there and do it!”

Samera Ashraf has overcome many personal obstacles to obtain a blue belt in karate and kickboxing. We asked her to explain how she challenges negative attitudes to women’s sport in Britain’s Asian communities, and why she’s passionate about creating a cultural change.

What drew you into sport, and how have your sporting achievements changed you?

When I was younger I found that there were very few women from my own background who were involved in sport. I wanted to be able to protect myself if I was ever in a challenging position, so I would play-fight with my three brothers. They were usually a lot tougher than I was back then. My sporting achievements to date have helped me to channel life’s frustrations into whatever sporting activity I am doing at the time in a healthy way. Sports have helped me to learn self-discipline, respect for myself and others, focus, resilience, empowerment and confidence. Being involved in sports has helped me achieve a balance between what was expected of me as a British Asian woman and what I wanted to do to help others.

I really enjoy watching football, cricket and boxing on TV and loved watching programmes when I was growing up like World’s Strongest Man, but I did begin to question why there were so very few women in sport in the media. Now, things are starting to shift slightly with more women being incredibly successful in the sporting world. I find it really inspiring to know that there are women like Ruqsana Begum (Muay Thai World Champion), MC Mary Kom (Olympic Boxer), Ibtihaj Muhammad (American Sabre Fencer), Maria Toorpakai (Professional Squash Player) and of course Dame Kelly Holmes (Olympic 800m and 1500m runner). Each one of these women’s stories of how they got into their chosen sport details adversity and how they have struggled to get to their level. I have a lot of respect for these strong and powerful women as positive role models for BME communities.

What can we do to make sports more accessible for ethnic minorities and other socially disadvantaged people?

I feel that there needs to be a shift in attitudes towards females of all ages accessing sports. Some families in certain BME communities have high expectations of their daughters to perform certain duties at home and to achieve above average grades academically. In my experience, even considering anything that may conflict with that is not considered acceptable. So that makes things difficult. I often felt like I had to justify my actions so that I could take part in sport, even if it was a quick game of football with my brothers.

There is also the issue of modesty when considering sports, especially when in a gender-mixed environment. Some young girls and women may be conscious of others from the community viewing them in a negative light if they are dressed in certain types of fitness clothing. This can be quite restricting and does put many females off. There is also the concern for some in relation to the hijab and participating in sports. This is a practical and safety concern for some, and there are now specific sports hijabs where pins are not needed. This is a positive step forward.

There are many community projects around the UK that offer free trial classes or discounted rates (at the discretion of the club) and this really promotes inclusion for all. My advice to others is, if you feel you can’t afford attending a class or club regularly then contact them and see if there is something that they can put in place for you.

You’re involved in a lot of community work, including the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and with minority women facing domestic violence. What are the greatest challenges working in these areas?

The premise of my work in the community and my voluntary work firmly lies with my desire to make a difference. There are many ways for us all to get involved with volunteering or possibly paid opportunities for a positive change. I worked as part of a team of caseworkers for Women’s Aid for six years. One of the greatest challenges for me was getting funding for our posts. Almost every year we were unsure of whether or not we would still have a job at the end of the year. I find that really unfair to the women and children we supported, who desperately needed our specialised practical and emotional assistance. The positive aspect of that chapter of my professional life is that I made lifelong friends with the people I worked with. We have a shared experience that few could comprehend unless you have been involved in it.

I volunteered for the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust for three years as an Athlete Mentor and am now an Ambassador for the trust. The team has improved the lives of young people aged 16-25 across the UK. It’s been remarkable. I was part of the pilot projects held in Scotland and the success rate of the courses to get young people who are socially disadvantaged involved has been paramount in obtaining funding for future projects.

Which of your successes has meant the most to you?

Every medal, trophy and award means a great deal and has led me to being recognised as a successful athlete. My highest honour and achievement is taking my parents to Buckingham Palace to collect my MBE for Sports and Diversity. When I was notified in June 2017 that I was part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, I was completely overwhelmed that someone had nominated me! I must admit I was slightly apprehensive about how I would approach my dad about it, given that he had absolutely no idea that I had a decade of martial arts experience. When I told him he was delighted and really proud. I hadn’t been expecting that. It meant so much for my dad to accompany me to recognise my achievements in my sporting and professional life.

What were the cultural barriers to becoming a successful sportswoman in a Muslim family and community? How can we help girls and women from minority backgrounds who are interested in sports?

My mum told me that I could not go to the karate classes on my own, and that my younger brother had to accompany me. I paid for us both to attend but after a short while he decided it wasn’t for him. I had to prove to my mum that going to karate classes was something I really wanted to do. If she didn’t allow it then I never would have become a senior belt. My mum’s concerns were that I would be in a mixed gender environment and that my instructor was male. She also worried about other members of my community finding out about my new hobby. She was concerned that I would shame the family name by not respecting my modesty or being in physical contact with other males when sparring. Her primary concern was my dad finding out. She knew he would not approve and she would get the blame for allowing me to participate in such ‘shameful’ activities.

I had to perform well at college and university or I would never have been allowed to continue with martial arts. I found for myself and many others from my background that there was a lot of pressure to gain high grades academically. The difficulty there for me, was that there wasn’t a balance. All my family would talk about was excelling in the academic world. I understand now why there was a constant push, but adopting a less pressurising approach may help others who are going through a similar situation.

The South Asian community often has high levels of diabetes and heart complaints. How can sport help to address these problems?

Given that recent official UK Government reports indicate that South Asians have the highest prevalence of diabetes and heart related issues, it’s so important we make changes to our diet and lifestyle. Almost all of the older members of my family have an extremely high BMI and that has certainly played in the back of my mind as an incentive to continue with fitness.

I have been approached by BBC Radio stations to discuss this concern along with other health professionals who work in areas relating to obesity in young and older people from the BME community. The conclusion we always come to is that again, a change in attitudes towards our health and lifestyle can have a positive impact. For some it is daunting to even consider changes towards a healthier way of living. What has been suggested is that we make small changes to begin with and then we can gradually work on improving ourselves. An important point made by a health professional during a discussion was that he found individuals would only make changes once they had been told by their GP or consultant that they were either borderline in a condition (such as diabetes or heart related issues) or they had been diagnosed with health issues.

You co-host a programme on community radio. What have you learnt by doing this?

I did volunteer with a friend at a local radio station on a voluntary basis for three years. As our confidence and experience grew we decided to approach the station management to increase our airtime until we were doing a three-hour show every week. I found that a lot of local musicians didn’t have a media platform, so I invited them to the studio every week to increase their visibility in the community. Our Asian Connections radio show started off addressing the need in music, events and cultural issues for people in our own community. But we made the decision to include non-BME members of the community to get involved and that really opened up many doors for us. We were very fortunate to have a flexible team that allowed us to do this. I loved every minute of it and would do it again. We had listeners who would contact us from America, Europe and Dubai. That just encouraged us to grow and expand over the years as radio presenters. It is a lot of fun. It was sometimes hard to commit to radio meetings and preparation for the show, but I would not change that chapter of my life.

Martial arts aren’t typically associated with South Asian people. What drew you towards karate and kickboxing?

Why not? I didn’t want to think about gender or what is viewed as culturally unacceptable by some. As for karate, I was in my late teens, and I saw an advert in the local paper and said ‘Mum, I want to go’. Unfortunately, the induction for beginners was on Eid. I raised a few eyebrows leaving family events early to attend an evening class. I needed my mum’s support because I didn’t drive and she would have had to pick me up and drop me off. She did, every week for four years, until I moved to Scotland.

I understand that there are issues around kit and uniform for some people when it comes to playing sports. My mum was happy once I had saved up enough money to buy my first karate kit. It was a long sleeved top with baggy trousers that respected my modesty. I knew it was just enough for my mum, but perhaps not for others in the family, or the wider community. That is why I had to keep my sporting life and achievements very private from other family members.

I started kickboxing after coming out of an abusive marriage. I needed something to help me regain some sort of inner strength. I was completely broken in every sense. I had to work hard on my own to piece myself back together. My previous years of training encouraged me to look into some sort of martial arts classes again. I decided to start a new sport. Within five months of training, I was fighting in regional championships as a kickboxer and coming home with medals and trophies.

What advice do you have for younger women interested in getting into sport?

The advice I would give to anyone who is interested in sports or fitness, is just get out there and do it. Have a certain level of self-belief and put those wheels into motion, you may surprise yourself in what you can achieve… I know I have! If you are conscious of being in a mixed group, then start a women only group. We all have busy lifestyles, and life just gets in the way sometimes. But if you really want to do something, nothing and no-one should stop you.

Do you have any hobbies or activities outside of sport?

Sport for me is always a hobby. There is no way I could ever justify being an ‘athlete’ to my family as a profession. They would never have understood and I feel they would be disappointed. So I never considered taking up sport full time.

At present I am focusing on my career and am not training as much in boxing as I usually would. Since the beginning of 2017 I made the decision to challenge the weakest area of my fitness, which was running. It was really difficult to go outside on the bitter cold and dark evenings, but I kept a training diary so I could view my progress and soon found improvements in my abilities. I signed up for every running event I could find in my area and completed seven of them this year. A real source of inspiration for long distance running is definitely one of my younger brothers who has an incredible sense of willpower and stamina. I am so proud of him.

I also like to teach myself to play instruments. I was in a band playing the drums for 2 years and we did not do too badly. We released an EP, we had a solid following and we completed a tour of Scotland, played festivals before I decided to leave and focus on ‘being a grown up’!

I don’t own a television, so music and fitness keep me occupied and allow me to help others in the community. My future plans are to sit down and write a book about my life experiences to date.