Israeli Arab Sisters Pioneer Boxing

UMM EL FAHM, Israel — Riham Agabaria has a left hook that will knock your socks off. Or your head scarf.

Sparring in her hometown in northern Israel, the shy 15-year-old lets loose a strike that brushes back the traditional Muslim headdress of her opponent — younger sister Fatma, who is forced to flee to the restroom to rearrange her hijab.

“I recommend every girl try boxing,” said Riham, panting from behind a light-blue head scarf after a two-hour workout. “It gives you confidence and teaches you how to protect yourself.”

With their unusual hobby, Riham and her 13-year-old sister have blazed a trail for other religious Muslim girls in Israel, and have sparked a debate within their own traditional society.

Influenced by their more liberal Jewish neighbors, Israeli Arab women have been encouraged to push the boundaries further than their peers elsewhere in the Middle East. Still, for young religious girls expected to keep to a traditional secondary role, the Agabaria sisters have managed to ruffle more than a few feathers by venturing into the strictly masculine domain of boxing.

Experts say there is nothing in Islam that directly bars women from sporting activities such as boxing, but many in this traditional hilltop town of 40,000 were skeptical when Toufiq Agabaria started training his daughters and, more troublingly, allowing them to fight boys. A local religious leader even issued a decree against the swinging sisters.

Toufiq Agabaria, a former Israeli boxing champion, sees nothing wrong with it.

“Sports is one thing and religion is another,” he said. “As long as it (boxing) is not opposed to the tradition of Islam, I think it is positive.”

Agabaria’s daughters hold national age-group championships for girls in the Israel Boxing Association — though they’re somewhat dubious titles, because there aren’t many challengers.

Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens make up roughly one-fifth of the population. They are often on the sideline of mainstream society, particularly women who are restricted by the traditional confines of the family.

Recently, a Muslim woman from Haifa won the Israeli equivalent of the TV reality show “America’s Next Top Model,” which included her posing in skimpy dress. Following the victory, she was ostracized by some family and friends and derided by her community as a bad influence on girls.

Toufiq Agabaria said boxing does nothing to diminish the faith or the dignity of his daughters. On the contrary, he said, the Quran is full of tales of women in battle, including one involving the prophet Muhammad’s wife.

Ibrahim Sarsoor, an authority on Islam in Israel, agreed the scriptures encourage physical education, though with certain restrictions.

“Islam does not differentiate between man and woman,” he said. “But if it is men with women, that crosses the line, that is unacceptable.”

Toufiq Agabaria’s daughters are covered from head to toe when they fight and only come into direct physical contact with boys under the watchful eye of their father.

“I won’t let my daughters walk around with a boy, but inside the ring I see them up close,” he said.

Their mother, Kiram, said she also supports her daughters’ pastime.

“Until now nobody has hit them,” she said. “They are very strong. We trust them.”

The Agabaria sisters’ main challenge is finding someone to fight. The women’s ranks are sparse, and the reputation of the sisters has scared off many potential foes.

Riham recently defended her national title. After no girl was willing to fight her, Riham battled a boy — and beat him. Fatma, a four-time Israeli champ, has never lost a match.

“I hope they will continue to be a good example for other Arab woman boxers in Israel,” said William Shihada, head of the Israel Boxing Association, whose 2,000 members include 25 women.

“But I am afraid that they will not. In our society, in our religion, it is not easy,” he said.

Several cousins and uncles have urged the girls to throw in the towel, saying boxing is unseemly for a Muslim girl and warning that no man will want to marry a woman boxer.

“Because I love the sport so much, no one can persuade me to stop,” said Fatma, donning red gloves to match her pink hijab.

The girls followed in the boxing footsteps of their older brothers, Mohammed and Ammer, also trained by their father.

Thanks to the support of the mayor of Umm el Fahm, the girls have thrived. Many in town, who refused to give their names, said they backed the girls and saw their story as proof of the diversity in modern Arab society in Israel. Others condemned them.

The Agabarias say their goal is to compete internationally, representing Israel like their brother Ammer, a seven-time national champion who has traveled as far as China and Korea for competitions. Their role model is Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter, whose image is plastered on a wall of their modest house.

Shihada said he hopes the girls can keep going until women’s boxing becomes an Olympic sport. But they are likely to be married before then, and that could bring an end to their careers.

“There is a limit to everything,” said Toufiq Agabaria. “When they get married, it will be the husband’s decision.”