After fleeing war in Somalia as a child, featherweight boxer Ramla Ali has had to fight for everything she has.
The 32-year-old is now about to write another chapter in her remarkable life as she prepares for her next bout against Crystal Garcia Nova of the Dominican Republic in the first ever female match to be hosted in Saudi Arabia.
Taking place in Jeddah on Saturday, the fight features Ali on the undercard of Oleksandr Usyk versus Anthony Joshua as the literal “fight” for women’s rights has reached new heights in the kingdom.
“I’m proud to give my community and my people hope and give African girls another reason to take up sport and strive for anything they want to,” Ali told CNN Sport.
As a refugee, Ali is no stranger to breaking barriers. She fled war-torn Somalia with her family and settled in the United Kingdom, dealing with the tragic death of her brother.
She told CNN in 2018, “The reason why we came here is because my eldest brother died in the war. He was struck by a grenade as he played outside the house. Obviously, from then, my mom didn’t want that 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 casual, healthy hobby to lose weight.
But her hobby soon bloomed into a passion.
Ali became a successful amateur boxer, winning titles such as the 2016 Great British Championship.
Speaking about the achievement, she told CNN in 2018: “I went in there a bit of a like an underdog … I was so scared when I saw the list [with the other fighters] and I ended up beating them and came out on top.”
She then went on to make history at Tokyo 2020, becoming the first ever Somalian – man or woman – to compete in boxing at the Olympics.
Now, a new barrier has been broken in Saudi Arabia, with the kingdom permitting a women’s bout to be publicly broadcast for the first time ever on a global stage through Matchroom Boxing.
The fight, however, does not come without its controversy. Many critics have accused Saudi Arabia of “sportswashing” their image with events like these, in an attempt to deflect from its record of human rights abuses – women, for example, were only recently given the legal right to drive in June 2018.
The contest also comes less than a week after Saudi women’s rights campaigner Salma al-Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison for her activity on Twitter, according to court documents viewed by CNN.
Al-Shehab, 33, was also banned from traveling outside of Saudi Arabia for another 34 years.
Saudi activist sentenced to 34 years in prison for Twitter activity
Ali, a devout Muslim who reflects modesty in her attire as both an athlete and model, believes that the fight is still a moment to be recognized and a step towards progress.
“I say positive change should be celebrated. Nothing is done overnight, and it takes many steps in the right direction to ensure equality,” she told CNN.
“The West only has to look at the last 400 years of its own past to see what it’s done to other nations, races and religions before being so quick to pass judgment.
“I appreciate that the region has to do much better, and I don’t condone actions against women’s inequality, but I also believe in pushing for greater inclusion, and that is what I’m here for.”
Saudi’s minister of sports, Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al-Faisal, says the fight is another example of the “quantum leap” for women in the kingdom and insists attitudes are changing.
“Our country is transforming, and women and girls are playing a crucial role. For sport, that means inspiring them to lead happy and healthy lives. And, we’re making real progress with participation amongst women and girls up 150% in the last couple of years,” he said in written answers to CNN.
“Ramla Ali is such an incredible role model. I’ve no doubt that many young girls will watch her fight against Crystal Nova Garcia and be inspired. Not just in Saudi Arabia, but throughout the world.”
Ali’s fight for representation in and out of the ring is underscored by the training she is receiving from Los Angeles-based, Mexican-American boxing coach Manny Robles.
Robles has already helped heavyweight boxer Andy Ruiz break his own barriers as the first ever Mexican to win the heavyweight championship of the world.
“Ramla is a pleasure to work with,” he told CNN Sport. “She has the dedication and discipline to be successful in the sport of boxing. Ramla has a story of struggle and perseverance.
“Everything she has, she’s earned. She gives women hope and a reason to believe that anything you set your mind to is possible.”
The undefeated 32-year-old, with a record of 6-0, says she is just getting started.
When she’s not in the ring, Ali is either delving into the world of fashion, or serving others as a UNICEF ambassador.
In 2018, Ali set up Sisters Club – her own charity that looks to provide a free weekly boxing class for women. It bids to be a safe space where Muslim women can train without fearing the threat of discrimination.
“I don’t give myself the freedom of sitting back just yet and looking on at all that I’ve achieved in my career because there is so much work still to be done both inside the ring and out, but I am proud of my resilience in getting this far and ensuring I grab as many opportunities as I can along the way,” she said.
Whether it is the ring, the runway or Mecca itself, Ali is challenging traditional norms and breaking ancient barriers to reach for equality as an African woman, devout Muslim and passionate female boxer.