‘Born Fighter’ is the title of Ruqsana Begum’s book that won the Telegraph Sports Book Awards Autobiography of the year 2021 and the struggle of the former World Champion boxer was much greater than the words could convey.
Her struggle was not confined against the foes inside the ring but beyond that against society, taboos and even her own family. The petite 39-year-old faced racism, abuses for her physique, height of mere 5 feet 3 inches and very seldom found friends in the sporting arena.
But, like a true champion she overcame all the odds and became World Champions in the Muay Thai Event of Kickboxing back in 2016 before entering into the world of professional boxing five years ago.
Ruqsana, whose forefathers hailed from Bangladesh, came to her ancestor’s land a couple of days back to take part in an international professional boxing competition and she dreams of finding champions like her from this very land.
Ruqsana’s ancestral house was at Balaganj in Sylhet. During the World War-II her grandfather migrated to England and fought for the British army. Later he took her wife and son Awlad Ali, father of Ruqsana with him from Sylhet to London. Ruqsana, the daughter of Minara and Awlad, was born in London.
She was interested in sports from her school days and used to play with boys during the tiffin break. Rather than focusing on study she was keen on sports and had been a regular member even in the boys’ teams.
At home, like in any other Bangladeshi origin family she used to help her mother in the kitchen and her parents wanted to find a husband for her at an early age. For Ruqsana, the contrasting aspirations of living in a dual world- being ambitious to become a great sportsperson and becoming a timid wife as per family- presented a tough dialectic struggle.
“My parents forced me to marry at an early age but I could not live in the family of my husband for long. I had to take on a tremendous burden of work there. At one stage I had a panic attack and became mentally unstable. As per the advice of physicians my parents brought me back home. Few days later I got divorced. In order to get out of the mental stress I started boxing,” said Ruqsana to Prothom Alo.
“I was a big fan of Bruce Lee. As I used to watch him on television I was amazed with his skill and later on I thought I really love this game.’’
But for Ruqsana, being a woman, Muslim and with Bangladeshi origin becoming a boxer was extremely difficult.
“I faced a lot of obstacles being a Muslim woman. During that time mainly boys used to practice martial arts and not many western girls were even seen in the arena. When I started, only a few girls used to take part in martial art. From the very beginning I knew this endeavour would be tough one for me. For many years I concealed my wishes to my family and continued practicing for five years without letting them know,” said a confident looking Ruqsana.
“I could not even bring the first trophy that I won openly at home due to fear. I bought it by covering it with a polybag so that my father won’t see it. Later, I hid it in the cupboard with the help of my younger sister.”
For Ruqsana, the boxing ring is not only the place of winning accolades but it is her saviour where she finds the spirit of life.
“Boxing showed me a new light of life. It taught me how to live with life, how to remain unshakeable to reach a target. I know I won’t be successful in everything in life but Boxing taught me how to face them. When I felt depressed, I used to go to boxing practice. My mother used to say, "If I remain well, doing so is not bad.”
Not only the struggle, she vividly recalls her memories of winning the world championship title.
“I got rather sick a week before that fight. I was not sure whether I could fight. I discussed it with the coach. This is the world championship and everyone will give their best. It was a huge risk appearing in the fight without being fully fit but I was eager to fight. I wanted to use the opportunity as the first British-Bangladeshi and I did it completely.”
After becoming champion Ruqsana became a favourite topic for British media. Companies like Adidas, Pandora and Apple started to sponsor her.
“The success did not come in a day. I reached that stage following tremendous struggles for ten years,” said Ruqsana.
Ruqsana teaches boxing to Muslim female students in London for free. She is a goodwill ambassador of Fight for Peace and Sporting Equal. She met Queen Elizabeth in 2012.
“I work with girls. Thanks to my contributions of helping girls breaking the barriers I got an opportunity of meeting queen Elizabeth. She asked me whether I have to endure a lot of pain while playing. I replied with a smile, yes madam. She heard the story of my struggle. It was like a dream for me.”
Ruqsana last came to Bangladesh 23 years ago. This time she rode on a rickshaw and even pulled one. The boxer was extremely pleased with the opportunity of returning here.
“My roots are embedded here. Playing in Bangladesh is a big thing for me. I may make an even greater change as a female boxer here than I did in England. Girls will be encouraged watching me, they will believe dreams can be fulfilled.”
Ruqsana wants to spread the message to girls that professional boxing may change their lives.
“I want to convince people here that professional boxing has a good career. The boxing market is huge outside Bangladesh. I achieved many things through boxing. I do not fear any opponent because I believe in myself. I want to convince the Bangali girls the same thing. Boxing has huge potential now. Girls should come forward for this game.”
Ruqsana knows the story of Indian world champion Mary Kom. She wants to prepare some new Mary Kom for Bangladesh as well.
“What Mary Kom did was really praiseworthy. Mega stars like Shahrukh Khan even congratulated her because she showed the light of hope for Indian girls. Boxing may emancipate one from poverty. The future champion like her may be brought from Bangladesh. The land may produce a star like Cristiano Ronaldo.”
*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Syed Faiz Ahmed.