SAMERA Ashraf is a fighter. A blue belt in karate and kickboxing, she is a black belt when it comes to confronting cultural stereotypes.
On Thursday night, at the Scottish Asian Women Awards, the martial arts enthusiast, whose life is a mash up between Bend It Like Beckham and Karate Kid, won the category for Excellence in Sport, rewarding her for her ability as well as her tenacity and unwillingness to be pigeon-holed.
“It has been very difficult because [martial arts are] not something that is encouraged in the black, minority ethnic community,” says the 30-year-old, who is originally from Manchester but now lives in Edinburgh. “But I just feel there is so much potential out there and so many things that could be achieved and we need to do more to encourage girls to come forward. It doesn’t have to be a physical contact sport, it could be anything but, if that’s what they want, then they should be encouraged.”
Described as a disappointment and a failure by teachers, extended family members and others because she refuses to conform, she says she cannot understand why people have such negative views, but is unwilling to be cowed by them, training with the Edinburgh Assassins and competing in regional and national competitions, while also representing Scotland at world championships.
Measuring just 5ft 2in, she laughs at the notion that anyone other than her opponents would feel threatened by her. Perhaps not physically, but mentally, her indomitable spirit means she is hugely formidable.
As a youngster she self-harmed, as a wife she suffered domestic abuse and, as an Asian woman, she says she has to overcome so many obstacles and, even now, faces opposition from traditionalists who don’t like the fact she thinks outside the box.
“Most of the time I am the only black or ethnic minority woman but it doesn’t go against religion, it actually runs parallel to the fundamentals of most religions because martial arts are about respect and discipline. It doesn’t go against anything other than cultural boundaries. You can fight even if you want to wear a hijab. We are not asking them to do it in their bra and pants! So there shouldn’t be any barriers. The only ones there are the ones you create yourself or that are created by the community. There’s no reason why our women can’t go forward and succeed and still learn how to cook a nice curry, and make chapatis and get married and do all that kind of stuff as well. We are known for multi-tasking.”
The easy path, she says, would have been to shun sport or take up the more accepted yoga, netball, hockey or even football, But those are not the activities that intrigued her.
“I have three brothers and they were a big part of my life, and still are, and we used to watch sport on the television and my favourite was wrestling but I think that was because of the costumes because they were very similar to Bollywood-style costumes, with the bright colours and the glitz. To see that and female wrestlers on the TV in the mid-1990s into the noughties, I just found that very empowering because any kind of physical contact sport is usually a male-dominated area.
“Films like Rocky and Karate Kid are two of my favourite films and I thought, ‘why can’t I do it?’ Now there are some strong female roles like GI Jane and Million Dollar Baby and Hilary Swank was also in Karate Kid 4 but I don’t understand why it is not encouraged. I have a cousin and I want to be a positive role model for her. I want to let girls from my community know what is possible and if I have to take the criticism and fight the fight so that it is easier for them, then I want to do that.”
An advocate for women and social and cultural integration, she abhors restrictions and ignorance. Having qualified with a MSc (diploma) in sociology, she works with Shakti Women’s Aid, and combines her kickboxing training with some radio work and stints as a stand-up comedian. “Some women out there shy away from media attention, especially when it’s about what we have achieved. In Islam we are taught to be humble and I do try to do that but there is a flipside to that and we have to try to encourage people and, if someone sees my story in the paper and decides to go, then I will feel very proud. At the awards, I spoke to women who said they had always wanted to give it a go but they were worried about what their family would say or the views of their communities.”
It was as a teenager in Manchester, where she grew up the granddaughter of very traditional Pakistani immigrants, that she eventually found the money to pay for her own karate lessons and got the backing of her mother and siblings. But, to this day, her father does not know.
“That’s purely because I feel he would be a force to be reckoned with and I don’t think he would be in agreement,” she said. “I felt that, if he knew, then it would be a psychological barrier. When I was fighting, there would always be a voice in my head saying ‘this isn’t right, this isn’t acceptable’. That might have stopped me and I didn’t want that.
“But dad was always out working and we had it timed to perfection. My mum would drop me off and pick me up and we just had to make sure I was home and showered and in my traditional dress by the time he got home from work and that my training kit was all hidden away.”
She hopes he may be more accepting if he was to discover her secret now, perhaps even proud of her achievements. But, while it would be nice, his blessing is not a necessity.
Ashraf has come through tougher times. Such as the domestic abuse that she says left her shattered into as many pieces as a smashed vase. That sparked her switch from karate to kickboxing. In Edinburgh, isolated from her immediate family, even after she had escaped the marriage, she says she was left with a volcano of detrimental emotions.
“I have had some really difficult times in my life and the anger and resentment was there inside me, but I was able to channel those emotions into my kick boxing and it has been a healthy outlet. I still have that fire inside me, but now it’s a good thing.”