A personal introduction to
Not Without a Fight
by Ramla Ali
Ramla Ali is the absolute total package - humanitarian, model, boxer and now author. Her life inside and outside the ring represents her ruthless refusal to quit and passion to fight for what she believes in. In Not Without a Fight Ramla details ten key fights that have shaped her remarkable rise to date, both in and out of the boxing ring. From her arrival in England as a refugee to being drawn to the energy and spirit of her first boxercise class; from the adrenaline of her first amateur fights to how she often powered on alone, searching for a community of women like her, and her biggest win of all: letting love into her life. Especially for Foyles Ramla has selected a powerful extract from the book which highlights two key moments in her life, and has also written an introduction giving extra insights into her dynamic mindset and her hopes for her first book.
In my opinion, the influx of immigrants into London over the past 50 years is one of the most beautiful attributes of the capital city. Its fabric as a city and its understanding of other people’s cultures is what makes it such an attractive home for so many. For me, London has always felt like the city at the centre of the world, but you can’t tell the story of this place and its people without highlighting some of its struggles.
The below extract from my new book, Not Without A Fight, highlights two important moments in my life. The misunderstanding of the Muslim community, which for me as a young girl was saddening to see and experience, a decade of misrepresentation and negative connotations plastered across the news as I grew up in my new home after having left Somalia as a child. This negative portrayal of Islam in turn created a culture of ignorance and anger towards those that follow the faith. No different to that of the prejudices faced by the Jewish people and the experiences of the Caribbean and Windrush generation in the 50s.
This part of the book also highlights the experience of my own personal identity as a Somali. We have a unique perspective and outlook. We are often thought of as the poorest of the poor within Africa and subsequently the black community. The idea that we are surrounded only by corruption, war, famine and the idea that its women are suppressed within this patriarchal system.
What I’ve always strived for and – what I hope comes across in the book – is the need to challenge these stereotypes, to educate others through actions first. To portray a Somalia and its people that others can be proud to call their home. The book is as much about me as it is a tool to help readers connect with themselves. My struggle is wholly my own but I do believe that there are shared experiences that everyone can relate to within the book.
The sole purpose I had for writing Not Without A Fight was to ensure that my narrative remained my own. I did not want the reader to feel sorry for me or to pity me. Because they shouldn’t. I have found true purpose in my journey thus far, which has been a blessing. Although I didn’t ask for the hardships, it is my strength and ruthless refusal to quit which is what I want people to take inspiration from and which I’m most proud of. My story is not that of the most talented or the most fortunate. It is one of necessity. A necessity to be the role model and representation that I never saw growing up in England. We now live in a time where social media has connected the world but in the same breath made everyone less social. A culture and generation that now find role models from reality television as opposed to the heroines of our society that are shaping governments, curing diseases and creating the most beautiful art and literature. I wanted this book to tell a part of my story that I believe goes to the notion that you need to embark on a true adventure in order to fill lived. Every chapter has its purpose as it does in life and I believe that we need to publish and portray more stories of people that have lived.
Of all my childhood memories, one stands out the most. I was around eleven years old, walking home from my weekly Quran studies at the local mosque in East Ham, which is where I lived at the time. It was September – the cusp of autumn – but the sky was dark and heavy with rain. I remember walking past the local shops on the high street – the cash and carry and the chemist. The cars on the main road would race through the puddles, sending a gulf of brown water over my shoes and up my ankles. I had walked that route so many times that the previous journeys all seemed to bleed into one; but that day was different. My road, Sibley Grove, was behind East Ham station – and the last five hundred metres of my walk was always filled with commotion, people streaming out the station and passing me by, it was normal. I would work my way through the crowd before turning left onto my road. If someone followed me, I did not think anything of it. On that day, the second I turned onto Sibley Grove, two boys on mountain bikes mounted the pavement in front of me, they braked hard and positioned their bikes to block my path. They did not look that much older than I did; at most, they were in their early teens. They both wore dark and baggy clothing. One of them had the sharpest blue eyes, and slicked-back hair that was damp from the rain, or an excessive amount of hair gel. I was so close to home, I walked on despite them being in my path. When they got off their bikes, my life changed forever.
‘Oi!’ the boy with the slick hair shouted. ‘What are you wearing that for?’ He pointed at my head, covered by my hijab. I did not connect what he meant with what I was wearing. My hijab was a natural part of my attire when I was young; I wore it every day without really thinking about it. Both boys started laughing, which soon turned into an exaggerated cackling that I knew was aimed at me. Before I had time to respond or move out of his way, the boy with the piercing blue eyes marched right up to me. We locked eyes for what can only have been a few seconds – though in that brief moment, time seemed to stretch and we could have been staring at each other for minutes. His next action happened lightning fast: his hand rose up and he ripped my hijab off my head with one forceful grab. He threw it onto the ground and stamped all over it, laughing loudly, his dirty footprints turning my blue scarf black. I could not understand what was happening. My head was instantly cold and my hair was covering my face, but I was too cared to move it out the way. I was motionless as they walked back to their bikes and rode off, taking a left at Browning Road and cycling away. It was only then that I let myself burst into uncontrollable tears. In all that time, no one else had walked down the street and I consoled myself alone, bending down to pick up my wet hijab from the ground.
As I brushed my hair out of my face, I realised I was bleeding. The pin that had been securing my scarf behind my ear had come undone, leaving a stinging pain and a thin trail of blood dripping down my neck. I rubbed at the wound, which only made it worse, and spread a sheer reddish tone across my neck like warpaint. I walked the last few metres home with my other hand covering my eyes – my family and I never talked about our emotions, and I didn’t want to let them see me cry. I did not learn the importance of being able to discuss my feelings with others until much later. For a long time, I would bottle all of my problems up and try to face everything alone, and that is exactly what I did that day.
Back then, I was not old enough to understand what racism and Islamophobia were, but I knew I was not strong enough to face those boys on my own again. I gradually stopped wearing my hijab outside of my home. I did not talk to anyone about what happened, and while Mum would occasionally ask me why I was not wearing it, she never pushed me. I would tell her I took it off for a PE lesson and forgot to put it back on, until, eventually, she stopped asking. I realise now that my emotions from that day had slowly turned from shock to pain and a deep sense of otherness. I was young and I knew I came from a different country. Growing up, all I wanted to do was blend in alongside everybody else. That was the day I realised I could not. I was different, and try as I might I would never be able to fit in. While my hijab has always been a source of pride, in the eyes of those boys it was something they did not understand. A combination of fear and ignorance made them see me as an outcast, someone worthy of ridicule. I thought that if I never wore it, I would fit in, and then I wouldn’t have been attacked; that they did it because I looked different.
School confirmed my suspicions, as it was where I stuck out the most. For one, I was Somali – I did not look like the rest of my classmates who were predominantly South Asian. I was overweight – compared to the thin girls in my year, and I did not have long straight and shiny hair like them either. These popular girls always wore the latest clothes from Topshop and Miss Selfridge, and had boys lining up for them outside the school gates. My family were poor, and could not afford to buy me new clothes. Instead, I mostly wore hand-me-downs from my two older sisters. For a long time growing up, all these things combined to make me feel so sad, small and desperate to fit in. I did not know it then but that horrible day, one of the worst in my memory, would have a positive impact on my life. That moment inspired me to be a fighter.
It would be years before I’d be putting on a pair of boxing gloves and learning how to fight inside the ring. My first unofficial fights started far from the gym: in the many moments in my life where I had to learn to defend myself, be resilient, be patient, and use my silence to my advantage. To stand confidently face to face with an opponent and strategically think about my next move. To transform all the things that made me an outcast into my superpowers. My life has been full of obstacles, but would not have it any other way, because each of these hurdles has taught me something valuable. In the deepest, darkest moments when I have felt the most scared and alone, those are the times that have shaped me more than anything. Through tears, setbacks and heartbreak, I have learned to keep going, and that is how I became the fighter I am today. It is not easy, but sometimes you have to face your fears and turn your vulnerabilities into your advantages; that is how you learn to be your own champion.
Ramla Ali is a Somali-born, London-raised professional boxer, model and activist. She took up the sport of boxing aged twelve, training and competing in secret from her family for over ten years. Ramla rose to early prominence as the two-time winner of the National Amateur Championships in England and winning the Great British Championships. With over seventy-five amateur fights under her belt, Ramla made history by becoming the first boxer to have won an international gold medal whilst representing the country of Somalia and the first female to turn professional. Ramla is a Nike Global Athlete and a proud ambassador for UNICEF.