By Tauhierah Salie
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is commonly associated with the big metal cage, rowdy crowds and buffed up fighters with cold, heartless eyes. It is also widely known as being an aggressive, manly sport. But, a Capetonian woman’s journey to finding herself in MMA is likely to change your perception.
As we ease out of the International 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, South Africans are mourning more maimed girls and women. Although there were dozens of initiatives and workshops trying to combat gender-based violence, our newspaper headlines and news notification would still be tarnished with the names of young women who had fallen prey to ruthless predators. Their names printed in bold, alongside go-to phrases such as “police are investigating the brutal rape and murder of…”, “the vicious attack on the young woman sparked outrage”, “(her) body was found, after she went missing”- phrases we’re all too familiar with.
Many religious groupings and community organisations had shifted their focus this year, not just on female victims but, more urgently, on young men. The proposed solution to reducing crimes committed against women and children is to ensure that the perpertrators’ – majority of which are boys or men- perception of women is comducive to a functioning, peaceful society. Core values of young boys such as holding themselves and peers responsible and maintaining respect for women need to be solidified- before society influences their “manhood” and distorts these morals for them.
Enter daughter, sister, aunt, mom of two, IT specialist, professional Martial Arts Fighter and coach and aspiring Life Coach: Fouzia Mohammed Roberts.
Roberts was born and raised alongside five siblings in their parents’ home in Grassy Park, one of the areas in the “southern suburbs” of Cape Town.
Speaking to VOC, she explained that she had always been a “hyperactive child” because even at primary school level she was already participating in athletics. Her eyes twinkled as she recalled her school days and how she’d rubbed shoulders with among the top athletes in the province.
“In high school I was a sprinter and I’d competed against (sport) giants! After competing in the inter school and inter province I was coached for field events. So, I did all those as well- and I excelled,” she said.
“Academically, I was above average as well so that never suffered”.
She smiled modestly as she described her accolades but emphasised how crucial it was to have the right mindset for sport. Roberts described leaving school as being “the worst, because (she) couldn’t do athletics anymore. (She) couldn’t afford to go study (that).”
The coach explained that her brothers were awarded the opportunity to go study while she went to work and pursued an administration job where she thought she “might as well retire.”
However, she had not accepted her fate so easily and decided to pursue one of her passions which was Information technology (IT). She worked at an admin company and then offered to do volunteer work on weekends only. Later, she pursued her degree.
Because her life had evolved -romantically- and things were going well enough, she studied part time at University of Cape Town and eventually got her degree as an IT Specialist… a marriage and two kids later!
“At that point, I decided to do everything I’d put on the back burner- and was one of them was doing martial arts. It was always my passion, I think, for the fitness and nutrition.”
Roberts is currently training her daughters, aged 4 and 9, on a regular basis- mainly for self-defense.
“The younger one loves it! But the older (one) was not that impressed. At first she did it because I told her to. But after a month she asked “when is training finished?”. So I had to sit her down and explain that it’s not going to stop. I’m doing this for them to be able to protect themselves. If they do it regularly it will become like a reflex for them. and then she understood.”
She explained why it is so crucial to not simply accept your position if you haven’t tried to make a change.
“After I had my first child, I looked in the mirror and said I’m going to accept that I’ll never fit into my cloths again. And then my friends (convinced) me to join touch rugby with them so I started training with them and -just like that- I lost my weight.”
“I got my confidence back. I looked in the mirror and said, “I accept that I CAN lose the weight, I just need to put in the work,” she exclaimed.
Pursuing a male-dominated sport was intimidating, but because of her “go-getter” nature she had not allowed for it to become too much to handle. ‘
“I don’t think a lot of people knew at first what I was doing. Some were shocked, like ‘why do you want to fight? She just wants to fight’… Everybody thinks it’s just fighting!” she laughed.
Fouzia didn’t want to publicly disclose her age but she noted that age shouldn’t matter when going after things you want.
“People put me in a box (because of my age) and I don’t like that. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad reaction.”
“I had to explain that I don’t “fight”. I’m training, learning a skill. There’s boxing, kickboxing, Mutai. There are people that compete and yes, I’m one of them. The reason why: I wanted to experience what it was like in the ring.”
The fighter shared the sentiment of dozens of other local MMA fighters and sport fanatics- being a qualified MMA fighter means you close-to (or completely) perfected several skills and can dominate opponents standing up or on the ground.
MMA is, as the name indicates, a mixture of several well-respected sports and art forms, practices. These include Boxing, Muay Thai, Karate, Kickboxing, Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Capoeira, Taekwondo and Krav Maga.
Every training facility will have coaches with different specialties that teach in their own unique way. Becoming successful as an MMA fighter often requires intense, regular training routines and a firm, dedicated mindset. Your direction and success is highly dependent on the capabilities of your coaches and your interest in the offered fields.
“My first fight was horrible; it was the most exhausting activity I did in my whole life. After that I said, ‘Thank you… but no thank you!’” exclaimed Roberts, laughing at her first performance.
“But as time went on, I realized I know what I need to work on. By my next fight; which was now in April (2019), it (had) went fantastic! My form was better, I was healthier, more confident.”
Roberts said after she attended the Fighter’s Inc MMA and Wellness Academy, she suggested a “woman’s class” which received an unexpected amount of support. She noted how more women started joining… including those in hijab.
“There were women of all ages and kinds that showed up, it was really surprising. I couldn’t believe I was training mualima, someone haafith. Mostly, the women show up for the weight loss, but there are others who are really passionate.”
“The Muslim women would take their hijab off when they train and we’d lock the door so nobody could just walk in. and if they did then they’d have to wait until all the scarves were on and then I’d let them in,” smiled Roberts.
The female fighter highlighted that the sport is one that thrives off discipline, dedication and confidence. Roberts felt that in self-defence “today’s times” is crucial for a woman living in South African where rape, murder and crime rates are skyrocketing.
“When I started, I became more confident and I wanted to instil that in the women. Not the men, the women. I’ve come across many chauvinists before and they don’t like strong women. A lot of times I hear “no, I don’t like pain”, “I don’t want to get hurt”, “I don’t want to fight”.
“But they (women) don’t understand. We don’t just focus on those (fighting) skills in the class, we focus on fitness AND having fun at the same time.”
She admitted that trying to solve people’s problems for them, is not efficient and obtaining mental health is crucial to success.
“There’s a lot of people that won’t acknowledged that they need assistance (like) that. Mentally. You can’t force people like that because you’ll drain your energy.
“The main focus (should be) on yourself, improve your mental states and try to encourage others. There’s a lot of people that are afraid to go there. I’ve learnt not to force the issue, just share and plant the seed. Eventually, they’ll come to.”
The issue of abuse was another strong point during the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. Therapists, psychologists, and researchers are among those who have pointed to abuse as one of the leading factors to depression, aggression and criminal behaviour.
“Growing up on the Cape Flats…. I don’t think there’s one person that hasn’t experience abuse in some way or the other. We see our families going through it, other people’s families. and It’s tough, seeing (neglect and poverty) all the time.
You need more work when you’re older. I couldn’t pinpoint why it’s so difficult (to overcome), but I think it’s because we never really focused on ourselves. We’re just living, it’s a habit. We don’t stop to just stop and self-reflect.
The mother explained that however important having a purpose beyond yourself is, loving yourself is just as important. Particularly for women, who often do not make themselves a priority.
“Having a passion is so important. Otherwise you’re just going to work and going to sleep. Especially in our (Muslim) culture. The women would put themselves last. They put their partners first, and their children… and then they’re miserable. Sometimes they don’t even know why they feel like that. But as a woman you open up your heart to everyone and you don’t get that love back.”
“What’s the point of making others happy and you not happy? Why aren’t you important as a mother, as women? Why do you give everyone love but you don’t give yourself love?” questioned Roberts.
“That’s not something you realise overnight, it’s something you realize over decades. You are important. You’re also important. Why not put yourself first? Until you get to that point where you say enough is enough you will probably (always) be doing things for other people other than yourself.”
“If you start put yourself first and making yourself happy, everything will fall into place after that.”
Fouzia said Allah has always been a pillar in her life. The aspiring life coach hopes to push more women to find their passion and become strong, healthy and happy examples to the rest of the world.