Zeina Nassar currently holds the title of Berlin Boxing Champion for the 5th time in a row. Having been very engaged in changing provisions regarding the dress code at boxing competitions, I was excited to get to know more about the determined and hard-working woman behind the medals and headlines.
A photographer and I met up with Zeina on a sunny day in Berlin this summer to talk about her life and career and take a few photos. On the day of the interview she had come down with a terrible cold, but she wouldn’t be Zeina Nassar if she would cancel a job for something like that.
Her energy was vibrant and energetic, exuding love and generosity – while at the same time you intuitively just know not to mess with her. Our conversation culminated into a discussion about being yourself, discipline and motivation. Keep scrolling to read Zeina’s reflective and insightful words!
When I watch people boxing it almost looks like dancing to me. Every boxer has their own personal style and way of fighting. Could you describe your fight style to me?
What instantly comes to my mind are the words of my first trainer, who always said that boxing is a dance and you try to throw your opponent off and make them lose their rhythm.
I think that’s super interesting because you don’t know your partner’s style but you get to know them throughout the fight.
Or rather you try to get to know them in the first 10 seconds of the fight and try to find out what their weaknesses and strengths are.
I box in a really nontraditional way which confuses my opponent often times. My guard isn’t always up and therefore I’m extremely fast in my upper body… that can be provocative. It changes from fight to fight though, sometimes I know I have the space to play around and sometimes I don’t.
A little like a conversation between two people…
I boxed for 2 years, obviously on a very basic beginner’s level but I know that boxing takes an extreme amount of focus and concentration. If your thoughts are somewhere else for even a millisecond you’re thrown off. How do you find this focus and commitment?
I mean, that’s really what the sport is. Boxing really asks for a great amount of respect and discipline and to me it is really important that this respect is there because it’s not simply about fighting, it’s about respect, about long hours of training and yes, of course, it’s about winning. But at the same time it really is about the values of boxing. Respect, discipline, devotion, and focus.
You need to be focused every single second because one second of being distracted and you’re going to take a hit. I’m definitely aware that even if I feel like I can’t keep going, I still have to keep going because there is no choice. I have to be focused, I have to keep my emotions under control from the first second of a fight to the last. Even if you take a hit, don’t get angry, think about it, why did I take a hit? Ahh because my guard wasn’t up. Then you take your guard up and keep going.
Sport always was my passion, so I knew from the beginning that it takes discipline. Train hard, set goals and do anything in order to reach them.
In a few recent interviews you’ve said that fighting is not about winning or losing, it’s about learning. And you just said that during a fight you have to control your emotions. Do you think that female boxers are, generally speaking, better at that aspect of a fight? Because in my experience women are better at handling a situation where they need to put their ego aside, just because it’s something we’ve had to do in the traditional role of the caretaker, mother, and wife.
I partly can agree with you on that. I mean it’s well known that at a certain age women are ahead of men when it comes to being mature. I can imagine that women are better at controlling their emotions during a fight. Out of experience I know that men are really sensitive and if their ego takes a hit they are really hurt. So I think, in general, women have their ego better under control.
Yeah I mean to a certain degree our generation of women are forerunners when it comes to women unapologetically living their truth. We are just slowly starting to break open the gender roles I think.
I still think, however, that some parts of society, which is us, we are the society, are afraid of really confident, loud women who live their life outside of typical female roles.
And in my personal experience, it’s irrelevant how you dress, what you do or say. We, or a small part of our society, are really quick to critique women for things that have nothing to do with their actual career, success or art. What are your thoughts on that?
For me, it really was like that. I have always been a strong woman who fought for her goals but I also experienced a lot of critique. Like when something was posted about me on Facebook or an article or something there was so much negative feedback from people who couldn’t wrap their head around the fact that I am a woman who is a boxer and to top it off wears a hijab. It’s like people expect less of me not only because I wear a hijab but also because I am a woman. I think that’s unbelievable. I never understood why people hated me, but I still had to learn how to deal with it. When I read something like “I wish you would die“ at the age of 14, 15… that’s tough. But it made me tougher and it motivated me.
But really I don’t get that negativity, I’m focusing on the positive cause I don’t have time for that stress, but still, I find it really sad. Especially when hate comes from women, because I feel like we should support each other and be each other’s cheerleaders and not try to bring each other down.
I think there is a lot of fear involved. Somehow it’s ingrained in us that somebody else’s success will undermine ours. But success isn’t a cake that we all take a slice of. We all have our own success cakes and if we support each other we have more cake!
I think so too but it’s still sad because, I mean, that’s my goal. I am trying to inspire others to be their best self. I fought for the competition provisions to be changed so girls with hijabs can fight, for myself but also to be an example for others that they can be whatever they want to be. I want prejudices to be proven wrong and therefore make them disappear. But I am still confronted with prejudice.
I noticed that too. You just have to take a look at the articles written about you, there is no article where the headline says “Zeina Nassar, boxer, 5 times Berlin champion.” It’s always about the Hijab wearing, female boxer Zeina Nassar. The focus is never on your actual performances.
Oh my god yes! And actually it’s so important to me that people don’t focus on my looks. Clearly, the hijab and my beliefs are a part of me and I identify with it but it doesn’t define me as a human. That is important to me! I am more than what I look like.
I have no clue, and I’m not religious so excuse me if this isn’t correct. But I can imagine that a reason for wearing a hijab could be that one wants to be seen for their achievements, performance and character. Not looks.
Yes, yes, yes.
I read that your goal is the Olympics. How do you think your path will look in the future?
So the competition provisions were changed in Germany but there are still many places in which I am not allowed to fight because I’m wearing a hijab, so, first of all, I have to be allowed to compete. I am sure that I will reach my goal but as of right now I don’t know how to get the rules changed for the Olympics. I do know, however, that I have good chances as a Nike athlete because there I have support.
And you don’t only box! I read that you study sociology and pedagogy and you also acted in a play recently, so you really express yourself on many levels. I feel like our generation is beginning to break free from this idea of doing the same thing your entire life. Instead, we build our own paths out of things we love and are good at. Do you want to pursue all those things in the future?
Well, I have always seen a relationship between those different things: in my sport, in my studies, and in theatre. It is really important to me that I don’t just do the normal thing like go to school, study, work at the same job for 50 years, start a family. I want to try things, get to know myself and find new interests and I just see where it takes me. I definitely see that the things I do now are all still important to me. In theatre, it’s really interesting for me to get a message across without being myself and not in the form of like a presentation but in a playful way. That’s the same as in boxing, I’m trying to diminish prejudices by doing something. Not just saying “hey that’s not true.”
I mean you are a powerhouse, you are doing so much! What gives you the power to live such a full life?
I think it’s the goals I set for myself. My motivation is getting closer to my goals. The feeling of knowing what it feels like to win, what it feels like in the ring when the decision is made and they lift your arm up. And we can’t forget that everything I do I do with passion. I want to stand for something and be someone.
Because you changed the competition provisions the public was quite quick to give you a role as “the first hijabi boxer.“ And with that came a role of being a victor, the strong one.
At the same time, I think that emotions and showing low points and struggles is really important because we live in a world that makes it really easy to hide our imperfections. What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s definitely a big role I took on, and I am aware that I have to be an example for people, and when you are aware of that it’s really easy to slip into a habit of only showing your strong moments. But it’s really important to remember that I am just a human, I am scared at times, I have moments where I’m unwell. I felt like I’m not allowed to show weaknesses a lot of the times but that’s just mad.
Right now I’m trying to really communicate that! Not everything works out all the time! Sometimes we don’t get what we want but the thing is, we just have to keep going. You can learn something from every situation. It’s ok to show emotion and softness and weakness and it’s ok to not be okay sometimes.
If we only concentrate on our strengths we can’t grow.
Yes and I think knowing your weaknesses and your limitations is a strength.
A lot of attention around you concentrates on your beliefs, gender, and nationality. So I would like to ask you, how would you like to be perceived?
My hijab is important to me but it doesn’t define me.
I am an athlete and it doesn’t matter what’s on my head but rather what’s inside my head.
My name is Zeina and not “the first hijabi wearing boxer.“
It takes an incredible amount of confidence and courage to fully be yourself and be open about your beliefs in our society because we judge each other for everything.
Exactly. And I think it’s so important for women, or rather for all humans, to stick together, to support and respect each other.