After fleeing war in Somalia as a child, featherweight boxer Ramla Ali had to fight for everything she had.
The 32-year-old is now set to write another remarkable chapter of her life as she prepares for her next fight against Crystal Garcia Nova of the Dominican Republic in the first-ever women’s match held in Saudi Arabia.
Taking place in Jeddah on Saturday, the fight features Ali on Oleksandr Usyk’s undercard against Anthony Joshua as the literal “fight” for women’s rights reaches new heights in the kingdom.
“I am proud to give hope to my community and my people and to give African girls another reason to play sports and fight for whatever they want,” Ali told CNN Sport.
As a refugee, Ali is no stranger to breaking down barriers. She fled war-torn Somalia with her family and settled in the UK, coping with the tragic death of her brother.
She told CNN in 2018: “The reason we came here is because my older brother died in the war. He was hit by a grenade while playing outside the house. Obviously, from that moment on, my mother no longer wanted this life for us.
Struggling to fit in at school, Ali was teased because of her size, but it was in her new home that she discovered the sport of boxing – initially as a laid back, wholesome pastime. to lose weight.
But his hobby quickly turned into a passion.
Ali became a successful amateur boxer, winning titles such as the 2016 Great British Championship.
Speaking of the feat, she told CNN in 2018: “I went into it kind of like an underdog… I was so scared when I saw the list. [with the other fighters] and I ended up beating them and I came out on top.
She then made history at Tokyo 2020, becoming the first Somali – male or female – to compete in boxing at the Olympics.
Now a new barrier has been broken in Saudi Arabia, with the kingdom allowing a women’s bout to be publicly shown on the world stage for the first time via Matchroom Boxing.
The fight, however, does not come without its controversy. Many critics have accused Saudi Arabia of ‘washing sport’ of its image with events like these, in an effort to deflect its record of human rights abuses – women, for example, have only gotten only recently the legal right to drive in June 2018.
The contest also comes less than a week after Saudi women’s rights activist Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for her Twitter activity, according to court documents seen by CNN.
Al-Shehab, 33, was also banned from traveling outside Saudi Arabia for another 34 years.
Ali, a devout Muslim who reflects modesty in her attire as both an athlete and a role model, believes the fight is still a moment to be recognized and a step towards progress.
“I say positive changes should be celebrated. Nothing happens overnight and it takes a lot of steps in the right direction to ensure equality,” she told CNN.
“The West need only look to the last 400 years of its own past to see what it did to other nations, races and religions before it was so quick to pass judgment.
“I appreciate that the region needs to do a lot better, and I don’t condone action against women’s inequality, but I also believe in pushing for greater inclusion, and that’s why I’m here.”
Somali refugee finds success in the ring
Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal said the fight was another example of the “quantum leap” for women in the kingdom and insisted that attitudes are changing.
“Our country is changing and women and girls are playing a crucial role. For sports, this means inspiring them to live happy and healthy lives. And, we are making real progress with participation of women and girls up 150% in the last two years,” he said in written responses to CNN.
“Ramla Ali is such an incredible role model. I have no doubt that many young girls will watch her fight against Crystal Nova Garcia and be inspired. Not just in Saudi Arabia, but all over the world.
Ali’s fight for representation in and out of the ring is underscored by the training she receives from Los Angeles-based Mexican-American boxing trainer Manny Robles.
Robles once helped heavyweight boxer Andy Ruiz break down his own barriers as the first Mexican to win the world heavyweight championship.
“It’s a pleasure to work with Ramla,” he told CNN Sport. “She has the dedication and discipline to succeed in the sport of boxing. Ramla has a story of struggle and perseverance.
“Everything she has, she has earned. She gives women hope and a reason to believe that anything you can think of is possible.
The undefeated 32-year-old, with a 6-0 record, says she’s just getting started.
When she’s not in the ring, Ali dives into the world of fashion or serves others as an ambassador for UNICEF.
In 2018, Ali started the Sisters Club, her own charity which offers a free weekly boxing class for women. It is meant to be a safe space where Muslim women can train without fear of the threat of discrimination.
“I’m not giving myself the freedom yet to sit back and look at everything I’ve achieved in my career because there’s still so much work to do inside and outside the ring, but I’m proud of my resilience to get this far and make sure I grab as many opportunities as possible along the way,” she said.
Whether it’s the ring, the track or Mecca itself, Ali defies traditional norms and breaks down old barriers to achieve equality as an African woman, devout Muslim and passionate boxer.