After conquering a series of firsts in her own heritage, Somali boxer Ramla Ali is taking her pioneering spirit to Saudi Arabia. Come August 20, Ali will make history by competing in the Kingdom’s first professional female fight as part of the undercard for the World Heavyweight Championship fight between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk.
The event marks yet another milestone in Ali’s career, who was the first Somali female to become a professional boxer, and the first from her home country to compete in the Olympic Games in 2021. “It meant everything to me,” she says of representing Somalia on the Olympic stage. “To be able to encapsulate what the Olympics is all about in representing a community and a nation was a great achievement of mine.” Although Ali feels strongly about losing the bronze medal match in the featherweight tournament, she recognizes the moment as a step in the right direction for Somali women. “It’s easy to judge on the sidelines, but to train your whole life and sacrifice everything for a dream that only you can see is something that’s hard to articulate,” she says. “Regardless of the politics of sport in Somalia, lack of funding or notice for the games, I understood that me being there and competing was more important than my own personal journey because through inspiration we will be able to see a shift in the landscape of females in sport in Africa.”
Somali pride remains strong within her, even after moving to England as a refugee after the Somalia War. In her adopted country, her accolades include being the first British Muslim woman to win the 2016 England Boxing Elite National Championships, and the 2016 Great British Championships. “It’s been a long time since I first put on a pair of pair of boxing gloves,” reflects the 32-year-old, who took up boxing as a teen. “I actually competed in about 14 professional Muay Thai fights in the UK before I started amateur fighting as a teenager and managed to keep an undefeated record in Thai boxing, but it’s a feeling like no other—complete control of your body and of your senses.” It was no surprise then that Ali made waves miles away from home in England, and was commended by Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, when she selected her to be one of the 15 women appearing on the cover of the royal’s guest-edited September 2019 issue of British Vogue. “Every chapter in my life has given me a different motivation to continue training and fighting,” shares Ali. “I’m proud of where I’ve got to considering my journey.”
When asked what is the best part about boxing as a Somali woman, Ali says, “It is the love and support I get from other Somali women, African and Black women around the world. Its honestly overwhelming. My husband always talks about how incredible Somali women are. They truly fight for each other, regardless of if you know each other or not. So many times I’ve travelled the world for fights in Asia, Africa, and America and the first thing that happens is a Somali reaches out to us to offer us a place to stay, food and love, every time.” While Ali doesn’t see a downside to her identity, she admits that being a Muslim woman comes with its challenges. “Trying to educate boxing commissions on not wanting to weigh naked on scales can be a battle everywhere we go.”
Outside the ring, Ali strives to use her platform to make a difference for the social causes she is most passionate about. These include “putting a stop to female genital mutilation in East Africa, raising awareness for refugees being displaced and not supported, and the famine crisis that continues to plague that region of the world.” In 2018, the boxer also founded Sisters Club, a charitable organization and a safe space that allows Muslim women to train with or without their hijabs, without fear of discrimination. “Ensuring more women have equal rights within sport and being part of something with both my charity and my work with Unicef is what I live for,” she says. The Sisters Club eventually expanded to welcome sexual assault and domestic violence survivors to learn self-defense, a skill that is also close to Ali’s heart. “I’m aiming on targeting a community that has historically not been given the same chances in life,” she shares. “It’s as much about teaching women to defend themselves as it is about inspiring more confidence in young women. I do hope there is a major cultural shift in the promotion of female combat sports that don’t feel the need to sexualize women in order to market and sell them or at least don’t feed that culture.”
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As the groundbreaking match in Saudi Arabia approaches, Ali expresses what it feels like to be a part of the Kingdom’s sweeping changes when it comes to women’s rights. “I think inviting myself to compete and allowing this fight to go ahead really shows you the cultural shift in landscape that is happening in the region and it’s something to be celebrated,” she shares. “No country is blameless in its history, and especially not the West. What people need to understand is that change can take time but provided that it’s moving in the right direction—that’s the most important thing.”
Ali’s upcoming match with Dominican opponent Crystal Garcia Nova at the Jeddah Super Dome is expected to be viewed by millions around the world, and it is certain that she will be playing to represent. “I just want to put on a good performance for the world to see that women deserve to be competing at the highest level of sport and on the biggest stage which this is,” she shares.
Before training for her next fight, Ali will aid in the development of the film adaption of her life, created by BAFTA-winning producer Lee Magiday, and titled In the Shadows, and fly to Africa with Unicef. Her message to the Somali women who look up to her? “Be relentless in your ambition. Be ruthless in refusal to quit. It doesn’t matter if it’s sport or education. What’s important is to believe in yourself when no one else will, and don’t be deterred by people along the way trying to prevent you from achieving a dream.”