How women in Central Asia are making their way into the martial arts

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Martial arts are considered one of the most difficult sports. This is a diverse hand-to-hand combat, which is conducted with the aim of causing the maximum possible damage or bodily destruction of the enemy.

And if earlier these sports were considered purely male, now girls in training in Thai boxing, kung fu or MMA no longer surprise anyone. Cabar.asia tells the story of women who have firmly occupied their niche in martial arts, achieved high results and gained worldwide fame.

Shoira Zulkainarova – four-time boxing World Cup winner

Shoira Zulkainarova has been breaking gender stereotypes with her fists for years and awakening in the hearts of girls the dream of victory, despite the pressure of society. She is the only hijab-wearing boxer in Tajikistan who represents the country in world-class fights.

The 28-year-old Tajik woman has achieved worldwide fame by proving that women can even engage in sports that traditional society would consider taboo.

Photo from personal archive


Road to the boxing ring

Shoira Zulkainarova is an eight-time boxing champion of Tajikistan. In 2022, she won a bronze medal in the 60 kg category at the World Boxing Championships in Istanbul.

Despite the many challenges that Shoira faces on a daily basis – constant pressure from society, negative comments on social networks, failures and injustices at competitions – she does not lose faith in herself and does not give up on her dreams.


Shoira says that at first she trained in hand-to-hand combat, but then she realized that she was made for boxing. This choice was not easy for her. In Tajikistan, this sport is considered forbidden for women in terms of religion.

Shoira had to go through the criticism and prejudice of society.“In fact, there were cases when the phrases “you are a girl, why do you need sports ?!”, “get married, start a family!” or “there was no other profession that you chose boxing ?!” sounded many times. I even left once from boxing because of such words and did not go to training for almost a month, but after a while she returned to the path of achieving her dream,” she recalls.

The athlete says that on her Instagram page under the posts they write offensive comments like: “Quit boxing, damn!”, But she does not pay attention to such comments.

Love for boxing and injury

Shoira does not admit defeat, she constantly moves forward and responsibly prepares for the competition. In 2019, she took part in the international championship in Kyrgyzstan. She defeated two of her opponents, but no one believed that she would be able to repeat her success with a third opponent in the ring.

“My then coach said:” You will lose “because my opponent was a very experienced boxer. I replied:” No, my sports conscience will not allow me to give up, even if I lose, I will enter the ring. “I went out and won” Shoira says.


According to her, there are cases in Tajik society when parents or brothers prevent their daughters from playing sports, especially boxing. In addition, not everyone has financial opportunities.

“My brothers support me very well and even recommended me to go in for sports. Previously, they solved all my financial issues, that is, I participated in competitions in other countries at my own expense. For two years now, the government of the country has been supporting athletes and this cannot but to please,” added Shoira.


According to her, she never regretted her chosen profession, as she chose it, knowing about all the difficulties that she might face.

She tells how last December she competed in a world-class boxing competition with a hand injury and finished third.“When my father found out that I took third place, he was very unhappy, because he hoped that I would take first place. My father scolded me very much, asked why I could not compete with my rivals, did not use all my opportunities. But he didn’t know that my hand was injured because I didn’t tell him. When I told him about it, he took me to Moscow to see a doctor who took care of my treatment. Only a week ago I returned to light training, “says Shoira.

Shoira plans to take part in the 2024 International Olympiad in Paris and represent Tajikistan. 

Despite the negative attitude of society, she does not give up and continues her journey in boxing on the world stage.


Natalya Tsoi – international boxing referee

In a narrow unlit lane between two central streets of the city, a young second-year student of the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs left the store and went home. This was her usual daily route. Nothing new.

Hiding her hands in fluffy mittens from the cold, the girl walked in the right direction. But suddenly a dark figure several times larger and taller than her appeared around the corner. A middle-aged man, sober, in decent clothes, without introducing himself, dragged the girl behind him to a distant car. It was only seven in the evening, the student hoped that someone would come out and help, but people never showed up.


It was necessary to act quickly, and, removing her mittens, she gathered all her strength into a fist and hit the attacking stranger in the face. A second and he fell. Classic knockout.

The man did not even imagine that Natalya Tsoi, the future boxing champion of Kazakhstan, was standing in front of him. And the current champion of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation in taekwondo.“Before, I had not knocked out anyone, but at that moment the Almighty and my fighting skills saved my life,” says Natalia.

However, pride from her strength and accuracy appeared in the girl later. At that moment, feeling terrible fear, she ran home. And for several years, living alone on campus, she did not tell anyone about this story.

After a while, Natalya became one of the first women’s boxing masters of sports, the first boxing champion of Kazakhstan, a police major, a candidate of legal sciences, a PhD doctor, an international category judge of the World Amateur Boxing Federation (IBA) and a mother of two girls.

It was she who was the first female referee from Asia at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (2016).

Way to the ring

Natalia started playing sports as a child, and chose the most aesthetic – ballroom dancing. Martial arts among girls were not developed then. Although in her heart she always dreamed of learning martial arts.

In high school, for the sake of interest, the girl began to attend taekwondo training and, to her surprise, showed very good results.

“When there is a desire and the right motives, everything will work out, you need to be able to listen to yourself,” Natalia is convinced.

Later, she switched to kickboxing, but there was not even a thought about boxing.“Boxing for me was the most courageous sport. I definitely didn’t think about it. Moreover, there were no women boxers in Kazakhstan then, and it seemed something inaccessible,” she recalls.

At that time, women’s boxing was not supported by the state and, accordingly, was not funded. The girl did not want to sit on the neck of her parents, and, after graduating from the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, she went to work in her specialty – in the internal affairs bodies. She left the sport. But only for a year. And when she returned, she decided to try her hand at boxing. And not in vain: Natalia entered the first women’s boxing team and in 2006 became the first champion of Kazakhstan.

Woman, flutter like a butterfly, pity like a bee

Previously, Natalya mistakenly believed that boxing was a rough sport, without a flight of fancy and requiring no mental effort. Now she realizes how wrong she was.”Boxing is a martial art, not a fight, so in the ring you have to think a lot and have high-speed intelligence in order not to miss a blow,” she says.

The current referee believes that the sport has developed in her rationality, composure during emergency situations, confidence and fortitude. But at the same time, she remained smiling, cheerful, easy to communicate, destroying the stereotype “boxing is not for women.”

In addition, in addition to the love of boxing, there is another aspect: “there are so many bandits around that the ability to protect yourself and your children is a necessity in modern society. It’s not about aggression and attacking others, but about self-defense.”


Despite the fact that boxing among women in Kazakhstan is gaining momentum, there are still not many female boxers. Natalya suggests that the girls themselves are not ready to embark on this path: some do not know how accessible it is, others are afraid of blows or public opinion.

Natalya was lucky with her environment: society did not infringe on her when she started boxing.“I remember that at first everyone was surprised, and then admired. Maybe someone condemned, but they didn’t tell me in the face. They were afraid,” Natalya laughs.

The parents didn’t mind either. It was the father who instilled a love for martial arts, teaching his daughter the first blows in childhood, and, as it turned out later, he set the technique correctly. And although my mother was worried, she said: “If your road is, it will definitely lead you to the right place.” And so it happened.

“I feel in my place, I am very happy!” Natalya Tsoi admits.

31 men vs 4 women

Natalya did not plan a career as a referee, but after the first invitation to refereeing in her native Karaganda, she fell in love with this skill.

“I have never felt any negativity on the part of boxers. On the contrary, a woman is fairer, she does her job very responsibly in the ring,” says the female referee.

For a long time, Natalia judged tournaments in Kazakhstan, and then she began to be invited to international competitions. At one of them, the referee received the “best referee” award – this is a serious qualification. After that, she was invited to judge the Youth Olympic Games and the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.


There, out of 35 referees from around the world, there were only four women.

By the way, in all of Kazakhstan, Natalia was also able to count only four international women judges. It turns out that there are few female boxers, and even fewer female referees.

It is more difficult for women to combine life and work as a referee, which involves frequent traveling and unstable financial income. However, there are those who, despite these problems, cope with both perfectly well, setting a vivid example for their followers.

Farida Abdueva – world champion in Thai boxing, Asian champion in MMA

Now behind the shoulders of the 19-year-old Kyrgyzstani is already a good baggage of amateur competitions and professional fights, both in Kyrgyzstan and abroad.

According to her, Farida was inspired to go in for sports by her older brother. Since childhood, he has been engaged in Thai boxing and spent almost all his free time in the gym. Farida was there with him.

“In general, thanks to my brother, I learned about the sport,” says the girl. “I attended all the fights and tried to never miss anything. This is how my love for training gradually began to manifest itself.”


At the age of 14, she finally admitted to her parents that she also wanted to start training and performing. However, her family did not take her wish seriously.

“They thought I would quit in a month or two,” says Farida. “But I clearly set my goals and from the first days I began to train hard.”

Considering that Thai boxing tournaments were held a couple of times a year, Farida was not limited to only this sport. The girl also competed in kickboxing, boxing, MMA, wushu-sanda, Burmese boxing, kung fu, etc.

“I competed in tournaments in Uzbekistan, Jordan, Kazakhstan and Thailand. Last year, I took first place in Thai boxing and took my first belt. Then the Asian MMA Championship took place, where I became a champion in two sections,” Farida says. .


But not all victories come easy. Sometimes, from heavy loads, the body simply stopped working and refused to obey. At such moments it was difficult both physically and mentally, she says.

“Behind my every fight is hard work, training, hours spent in the gym. Something that no one sees. Only my coach and I know the price of our victories. But if there is a desire, there will be a result, despite any difficulties. The main thing is don’t break down after defeats and don’t give up if it’s hard,” Farida notes.

No state support

Abdueva notes that in Kyrgyzstan, compared to other countries, there are not so many athletes who are professionally engaged in martial arts. According to her, there are a lot of talented girls in the republic, but many simply do not have the financial opportunity to professionally practice this sport.“Athletes always need to take vitamins to maintain their health, they need to constantly travel to competitions in order to gain experience, they need to travel to training camps in other countries. And all this requires a lot of money,” Farida says. “However, unfortunately, the state supports only Olympic sports. Maybe non-Olympic sports also get something, but support does not reach the athletes themselves.”

Abdueva continues that all this is very noticeable when you look at the level of training of other countries. There, the women’s teams are fully staffed on a par with the men’s – there are coaches, sports doctors and all the equipment necessary for performances. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Kyrgyzstan.


“It seems that we don’t take women’s martial arts seriously,” says Farida. “Although we also represent our country, we also glorify our flag in foreign arenas. Therefore, I think martial artists deserve scholarships, attitude and recognition on par with other athletes.

Aziza Yakubova – bronze medalist of the World Boxing Championship

Over the past few years, Uzbek athletes have shown excellent results, winning many prizes at the Asian, European and world championships. At the Asian Youth Championships in Tashkent in January 2023, female boxers from Uzbekistan won 10 medals: five gold, three silver and two bronze.

Over the past two years, there have been many other championships, where Uzbek athletes, breaking stereotypes, have reached incredible heights in boxing.

One of them is 29-year-old Aziza Yakubova, who competes in the weight category up to 55 kg. She is the first female boxer from Uzbekistan to win a medal at the World Championships in Turkey in May 2022.


The athlete was born in the city of Jizzakh, the center of the Jizzakh region, located 201 km southwest of Tashkent. The girl got into sports thanks to her uncle, boxer Gairat Karimov. It was he who once took the six-year-old Aziza with him to the hall.

Since that day, according to her, she had an interest in boxing. She went in for sports and trained under the guidance of her uncle, participated in city and regional competitions, traveled to training camps in other cities of Uzbekistan.

Success did not come to her immediately. For almost five years, from 2009 to 2014, she even had to leave the sport. She moved with her mother to Russia, where they took on any job in order to earn housing and food. Aziza remembers how she and her mother worked in greenhouses where they grew vegetables.

The turning point for the girl was the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and the performance of her compatriots. Then the Uzbek boxers won seven medals, three of which were gold. Khasanboy Dusmatov was the triumph of those games, he became an idol for the young Aziza.“When I watched the sparring of our boxers and saw their victories, I told my mother: “Mom, I will take boxing seriously,” Aziza recalls.

The decisive attitude of the future champion led to cardinal changes in life. In 2019, she moved to the city of Andijan, where she began to train under the guidance of Ziyatdinbek Toygonbaev, who also trains Aziza’s idol, Olympic champion Khasanboy Dusmatov.


It was not easy in a foreign city – there was no work and no opportunity to rent housing. She was adopted by her best friend’s family. Three months later, the coach helped with the job, arranging her with the Andijan Boxing Federation, which assigned her a salary.

Despite all the difficulties on the way to success, the athlete was always supported by her mother, Suriyakhon Karimova. She believed in her daughter when others said that boxing was not a female sport, and it was also dangerous.

However, the athlete hears such comments even today. After an eye injury at the World Championships in Moscow, the first words of her relatives were that they should stop boxing and endanger their health. However, for Aziza, boxing has become not just a sport, but a matter that she lives and breathes.

“I want to reach all the heights in the amateur ring and box in professional boxing,” says Aziza.

And, despite the fact that, in her opinion, it is more difficult for female athletes because of established opinions and the division of sports into women’s and men’s, she is sure that this should be the last thing to pay attention to.

“The main thing is to set a goal and go towards it, regardless of the circumstances and what others say,” says Aziza.At the same time, she notes that, despite the traditional views in the countries of Central Asia, there is a lot of competition in boxing among men and women in Uzbekistan. Girls come to the sport for various reasons: some for self-defense, and some in order to achieve the championship title.

Aziza is trying to change the stereotypes that boxing is not for girls and dreams of leaving her name in big sport. Today, her example inspires many female boxers in Uzbekistan. Bronze at the World Championships in Turkey is the main victory for Aziza so far.

“I understand that there are families that do not allow their children to box. But sport is always about dedication and work. And I’m sure that you can always come to a compromise and not ruin a child’s dream,” Aziza said.

At the same time, in life she is an ordinary girl with her dreams and hobbies. For example, singing and writing poetry is a girl’s hobby, to which she loves to devote herself no less than to sports.

And in the future, she dreams of opening her own boxing gym and training girls – the future boxers of Uzbekistan.

Source: asiaplustj