Sannah Hussain, the Scottish boxer who fights Albinism and discrimination

Sannah Hussain has overcome her health difficulties to accomplish her boxing dream. © S. Hussain/ ZA Photography

“Without my illness, I don’t think I would have the same drive.” Sannah Hussain would love to be a professional boxer, but she suffers from Albinism and an auto-immune condition which do not let her see well or have the physical strength she might need. Nevertheless, she does not give up and already took part in an exhibition fight last Septembre, after just about half a year of training. Another one is planned for next March.

Her dreams go beyond boxing and she is accomplishing them already as well. She studied a degree in Finance, Investment and Risk and currently works as a fundraiser at the Human Appeal NGO for Scotland. “I cannot imagine working in any other sector” than charity, she tells Salam Plan. In fact, she felt in love with boxing after organizing ladies- only classes as part of her job. She also enjoys being a DJ and host of her own radio show on Scotland’s only Community Asian Radio Station, Awaz FM.

Born and raised in Glasgow, Sannah (25) defines herself as a “curious young mind” and explains she likes “to meet people from different backgrounds and communities with their love for humanity as their common ground”. She has become an activist for different causes, especially for Muslim women like herself, and recently held a conference at the Mindful Drinking Festival in her city, when she answered Salam Plan’s questions.

“I get shocked looks when I begin to speak and people realise that I am extremely Scottish and a Muslim that wears a hijab”

The Mindful Drinking Festival vindicates the normalization of not drinking or moderating the drinking for all sorts of people. How is it not to drink alcohol in Scotland? Do you feel a social pressure to drink?

I have been born in a part of the world where drinking alcohol is a normal part of the majority’s life. I have been in scenarios where alcohol has been offered to me more than once. For example, during parties or at office evening outs at restaurants and bars.

I don’t think my faith has changed the pressure or offers I have been given. But there has definitely been a difference in reaction when some people realise you are Muslim and cannot hide their disgust in your decision.

Did you often get the question “how can you have fun without drinking”? What do you answer?

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked this. But my simple response is that I don’t need to drink to have fun. I often ask a similar question…how can you have fun drunk? Which isn’t always taken well but sometimes gives people something to think about.

Do you miss more non-alcoholic drinks offer when you go out and about?

It can be frustrating sometimes that the options are so limited and (that there are) two or three options of soft drinks. It also sometimes baffles me that a lot of bars do not even offer mocktails, as though it is so much more effort to make when I’m not sure if it is! However, unlike those that drink alcohol, I don’t get much out of a soft drink other than my thirst quenched which is generally all I am looking for, so I’m never too upset for too long [she smiles].

>>> Follow Salam Plan- ‘journalism against hate’ on Twitter and Facebook <<<

Do you have other difficulties or discrimination due to your faith?

I have never suffered from any real discrimination or discomfort due to my faith other than a shocked look when I begin to speak and people realise that I am extremely Scottish and a Muslim that wears a hijab. Before I started wearing a hijab my blond hair really confused non-Muslims and Asian people that did not venture far as they were both surprised that a white-Muslim could exist.

As a confident and enthusiastic young woman, I take it upon myself to interact with others to show how much more in common we have than what separates us.

Did you need to break many taboos to start boxing?

While a lot of people in the community were surprised about Human Appeal’s Ladies- only boxing class, the response was positive. Everyone I have spoken to, male and female, agreed it was a great idea. But I am not naive enough to think that there are not people that are not impressed. However, we have taken every measure possible to ensure the classes do not compromise faith and believe of our Muslim and Asian Community.

My biggest issue was in convincing others of the seriousness of my [exhibition] fight while having a disability and illness. Many thought my fight may be staged or that the gym was simply allowing me to live my dream. Whilst I do believe I am living the dream, the fight was very much serious and filled with risk. But I let my fists do the talking and remained focused. I may be visually impaired but when you are in the boxing ring and so close to your opponent, you use more senses than just sight.

“Whilst I do believe I am living the dream, the fight was very much serious and filled with risk. But I let my fists do the talking and remained focused”

How did you fall in love with boxing? 

After I started up the Ladies- Only Boxing Classes with the help of a colleague and volunteers from Human Appeal, I took part to promote and encourage its success. But after the first class, I found that training once a week was not enough and I began to attend more classes more regularly. My love of boxing grew from there.

Something about working alone, knowing that your success and failure is down to you and no one else, pushed me to try and prove to myself that I was capable. The ultimate way of doing this inevitably was by having my first fight, so when the opportunity arose I jumped at it. I never took no for an answer and pushed myself to be ready.

What makes the special sessions for women at the gym offer which is different from the other sessions?

The classes we provide are delivered by many experienced female coaches and the whole gym is shut to the rest of its members and staff at this time. Ladies and young girls can feel comfortable with wearing whatever they like as long as it is safe to work out in and can remove their hijabs if they wear one.

Those that attend have full access to the gyms facilities at this time; however, the coaches provide an excellent session which covers fitness and boxing technique. The best part is that the money made is donated to Human Appeal’s many charitable projects after paying the gym. We are currently reaching out to businesses and organisations and asking them to sponsor the classes on a month to month basis so that more money can be donated to charity.

“Knowing that your success and failure is down to you and no one else, pushed me to try and prove to myself that I was capable”

How did the idea of the women- only classes come along?

The classes simply started after a female volunteer disclosed to Human Appeal that she really wants to get back into boxing but because of her age her family do not feel comfortable with her working out alongside the men in the boxing gyms. After doing some research we realised this was how a lot of people felt and my colleague approached a gym to see if there was a middle ground. The gym was more than happy and since the classes started in February this year we have seen a lot more members from ethnic minority communities, both male and female, join the gym and taking part in other sessions that are provided.

Feedback has been very positive and we don’t feel as though we are treated any different from any other users of the gym. Our only issue has been finding a time that can suit everyone as many women have different responsibilities and cannot attend the weekly session we provide. Asking the gym to shut its doors to others is a huge ask and we are still working on expanding.

Sannah Hussain’s exhibition fight in Septembre 2018. © SK Boxing Promotions

Do you feel the hijab poses difficulties to Muslim women to do sports? Why?

Yes! Have you ever tried to work out while wearing a hijab? If you have not, I can tell you it is not easy or comfortable. It is hot, itchy and doesn’t stay put; it gets in the way and stops you from focusing on the work out. So if you cannot even train how can you compete?

Many companies now sell sports hijabs and while they may make things a lot easier they are not easy to get a hold of in the UK. They come from overseas, cost a lot and take ages to arrive and once you have it you may not like it because you never had the chance to try it on beforehand.

Although I am very welcomed in the gym, I have struggled to wear my sports hijab as I feel that I stand out and cannot fly in under the radar unlike those that don’t wear a sports hijab.

The difficulty extends to what one wears as well. As hijab is not just about covering your hair but about dressing modestly too (and) not many sports accommodate this either. Luckily as my fight was an exhibition, the gym were very flexible and allowed me to wear a long sleeved top, leggings and my sports hijab under my kit. But moving forward, what I wear could pose issues depending on the level I fight at.

“I feel that I stand out and cannot fly in under the radar unlike those that don’t wear a sports hijab”

How does Albinism and your auto-immune condition affect your boxing career?

Albinism and Myasthenia Gravis (MG) means that I will never have a professional boxing career. I am simply not fit or healthy enough to expect that of my body which, while sad, is a fact of life and not due to a lack of determination or motivation. It would be foolish for me to put myself in a position that could lead to a serious injury or force me to not want to box in any capacity.

However, I have really enjoyed my journey with boxing so far. My exhibition fight will be the highlight of the year and I will continue to train in the gym to stay in shape and on top of my technique. But I would never say never and if I am offered another exhibition fight, I will be likely to accept. [Sannah Hussain got the opportunity for a new exhibition fight on March 2019 after this interview had taken place.]

What would you say to other people suffering from Albinism or MG who want to make a sports career?

Not everything is about competing with others and simply allowing yourself to be part of something is important too. I have spent years in my childhood playing football and cricket and I was awful: I can never see well enough to keep up, but I remember enjoying myself. Maybe not every game was fun but being with friends and family was enjoyable and at least I can always say I tried my best.

But if you are serious about sports, get in touch with local clubs and organisations and ask to get involved. Try as many things as you can ‘till you find what is right for you! Understand it won’t be easy and be prepared for rejection. Sometimes you need to keep knocking on doors and revisit the same ones ‘till you find the right people to listen.

“To all the women fighting against discrimination and trying to overcome hurdles: you are not alone! Keep pushing forward, anything is possible”

You would like to make a boxing career.

In an ideal world I would love to have a boxing career but the factors that stop me are the factors that motivate me, so without my illness I don’t think I would have the same drive.

Do you have any wish for Muslim women in sports and in Scotland?

I wish that more Muslim women would be less fearful of being judged in any capacity or environment. In many cases people have opinions of Muslims that are easily changed through a friendly conversation and while some people’s opinions cannot be changed, we will never know until we try.

To all the women fighting a specific battle against discrimination and trying to overcome hurdles: you are not alone! Keep pushing forward, anything is possible.

>>> Follow Salam Plan- ‘journalism against hate’ on Twitter and Facebook <<<