Maria Khwaja is currently an English teacher and is training to hopefully fight as an amateur kickboxer in 2016.
She is also the founder of Elun (www.teachelun.org), a nonprofit dedicated to providing free teacher education to schools in the developing world. Elun has completed several projects in Rwanda, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Tanzania. Maria is also a freelance writer for the Fair Observer, focusing on issues related to educational development and Muslim women.
Training photography by Mannie Taya Photography.
This is not the life that I thought was intended for me. At thirty-one, I sometimes look around and wonder why I’m not living in a Chicago suburb, married and raising a few lovely children.
Instead, I’m a nomad, a teacher, a writer, a kickboxer. When I landed back in the States this year after five years of living abroad, I was not only culture-shocked, I was confused about where my life was going.
Enter the gym. I’ve always gone to the gym to deal with huge life transitions – moves, break ups, family problems. I’ve always been known in my larger circle of friends as the gym addict.
I didn’t walk into a Muay Thai gym, though, until I lived in Qatar in 2010. My addiction to it grew quickly and melted into a fascination with boxing, too.
But when I walked into my current gym, Streamline, this past July, I was out of shape after months out of training. Emotionally overwhelmed and exhausted because of many life changes, I was seriously considering dropping all the dreams I’d been working so hard to accomplish.
Although I’ve always managed to pick myself up before – I’m known for being pretty hard-headed and resilient – the last few years had really piled on the stress and frustration. I began to wonder if I was purposefully making things more difficult for myself by being so ambitious.
I grew up as a first generation Pakistani-American woman in a Muslim community outside of Chicago. As a Pakistani, I saw the sacrifices of my parents when they came to the US and the corruption and pain of the country I came from. As a Muslim I was taught to do the best I could to be kind to others and help those who were suffering. Listening to the stories of women in Pakistan, Tanzania, and in many other places, I could not help but become radicalized as a woman and a feminist.
Because of all these factors, I spent all of my adolescence, university, and most of my professional life working on educational development with a particular focus on combating violence, child labor, and education for girls.
I suppose if I look back, I was always going to be a fighter. My mother says I’ve always had a mind of my own. In this, I’ve been no different -- I can see that the world is an ugly place but I refuse to give in to the temptation to be apathetic. I refuse to stop caring.
Some of us are born to fight.
At the moment, watching all the fear mongering on television and the worldwide debates on human rights, I realize this more and more. Some of us are born to fight. For us, everything else is what R.M. Drake says: “comedy and politics.”
In 2012, I began Elun, a small nonprofit dedicated to providing teacher training for free in developing countries. We started in Pakistan but quickly expanded to East Africa and Bangladesh.
Elun has taken me to places I’d never imagined I’d go: Tanzanian villages where little girls ran in party dresses. The city I was born in, Karachi, teeming with people and honking cars. Bangladeshi villages where schools are built out of precarious tin sheets and children threw flowers in greeting. The Rwandan countryside at night, where I watched refugees from other countries slowly walk down roads in the dark.
Most of these experiences were uncomfortable – I was dirty, hot, hungry, using squat toilets, sometimes ill. Once I even hallucinated while taking anti-malarial medication and saw a dark shape following me around for weeks.
All of these experiences were humbling. They all gave me reasons to care, people to care about and fight for every day.
I carry certain dreams very close to my chest: to expand Elun and help teachers in developing countries better educate children, to fight extremism and violence, to help every child have hope, to make the world safer for young women, especially those in combat zones.
But this year, with both global and personal crises, I found myself at a loss. I actually felt as though I’d fallen to my knees on the path I had made for myself but was unable to get up. It was a terrifying feeling: I woke up every day combating crippling anxiety, self-doubt, and plain old fear. "You can’t do this" kept going through my head. You can’t do this.
These are the little lies we often tell ourselves when we are on the cusp of something. Plenty of inspirational posters about courage gloss over the difficulty of rewriting off the narrative you are telling yourself: that you will fail.
I was terrified that I would fail myself, that I would break the promises I have made to teachers and children in many different places. I was afraid that I had lost my resilience and my strength, lost my way.
Full of these anxieties and doubts, I walked into the gym a few months ago. The kickboxing class intimidated me immediately because I could feel how quickly my breath ran short. I was embarrassed at my poor health, felt defeated when I couldn’t keep up with other people and my feet bled from rotating on the floor. But I kept coming back, feeling like a complete idiot.
It is in this tenacity and determination to keep showing up that I always recalibrate myself. It’s in the smell of leather and the satisfying crack against the pads when you snap a kick properly. I just told myself one thing: show up. Show up and, at some point, it will begin to make sense again. Show up.
And somewhere in all the sweat and fear, I found myself smiling because it did make sense. Pushing myself physically this way always brings me back to seeing myself clearly – my lack of follow-through on that hook was fear that I would lose my balance. Running outside the gym to drop a few pounds was an exercise in determination. I missed an opportunity to strike because I spent too long thinking; I had to trust my gut.
When one of the trainers suggested I could do an amateur fight, I looked at him like he was crazy. Me? Fight? The first time I’d been thrown in the ring, I’d stood there bewildered. When they’d thrown me with a sparring partner who was far better at boxing, I finally understood what it meant to be hit so hard I saw stars.
And yet, I kept coming back, determined.
It’s in that return that I find myself. When I do it physically, for some reason, I also begin to do it mentally. It’s hard.
I began reaching out to connections to start my development work again, began writing and found a wonderful community of Muslim female fighters. One of them, a Saudi fighter, inspired me to take up Brazilian Jui-Jitsu. Only four classes in, I spend most of my time either smothered by a much larger person or trying to figure out how to avoid being underneath the other person.
I finally agreed to an amateur fight sometime in early 2016 and now I train for more hours than I can really count and I love most of it. Sometimes there are difficult days, sometimes things don’t land right and joints are stiff, sometimes I get clobbered when sparring, but I keep telling myself to go back. My life, meanwhile, has also slowly wound itself back to a place where it’s starting to make sense.
Perhaps I knew this would happen, but I can say honestly that I spent the last four months in a fog of indecision and anxiety. The clarity of knowing that I just had to hit something was my only safety, as strange as it sounds.
Finally, I’m learning to trust my own decision-making again without overthinking or being doubtful because when I do that in the ring, I get pounded. I’m learning to respond when I’m being attacked and throw combinations without being overwhelmed. I’m learning to be aggressive when it’s appropriate, to stop apologizing when I back my sparring partner into the corner, to work my body like it is a machine.
Some days I am incredibly frustrated when I am corrected on the same thing several times. None of it is easy.
Pursuing dreams isn’t easy, either. Making the time to write, to travel, fighting the fear that I have reached too far, dreamt too big, is hard.
But I keep coming back, in the gym and in life, because I know this is what I was born to do. Some of us are born to fight.
This is the twenty-sixth profile in our Society Nine Storytellers series where badass female fighters across all sports, media and culture in our community share their definitions of femininity, strength and empowerment and discuss what they fight for.
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