They’re young female Muslims and they box. Evie Manning tells Mark Fisher why a city estate is ideal for their work
Evie Manning remembers how surprised she was when one of her neighbours took up boxing. It wasn’t only that she was a woman, it was also that she was a devout Muslim. “She loved it, which I found quite fascinating,” says the theatre director. “It made me tackle my own assumptions. Even though I’ve grown up in a very Asian part of Bradford, which is an Asian part of the country, I still have those assumptions – or I did.”
Her neighbour is a sign of the times. Before Glasgow 2014, we’d never seen women’s boxing in the Commonwealth Games – and it was only in 2012 that the sport made it into the Olympics. Now female athletes have claimed an international arena to slug it out in four two-minute round bouts in the flyweight, lightweight and middleweight categories.
All of this is of particular interest to the group of feisty contenders who are going through their paces in Sandy’s Boxing Gym in Craigmillar, Edinburgh. Brought to the city from Bradford by Manning and her theatre company Common Wealth, they defy all your expectations of what a boxer should be. They are young, they are female and they are Muslim.
“We wanted to do a show that was for a young Muslim female audience as well as being made by young Muslim participants,” says Manning. “We were like, ‘How does this speak to a generation of young Muslim women who might want their expectations raised a little bit?’”
Common Wealth is a theatre company on a mission. “We’re bored of theatre being for the middle classes and those that can afford it,” proclaims its website. That’s why you’ll find the show, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, not in one of the big Fringe venues, but a 25-minute bus drive from the city centre. Manning talks with pride about the Fringe venue board now displayed outside the gym in Craigmillar’s Castleview Centre. “Why does the Edinburgh Fringe have to happen just in the centre?” she says. “We can take it out and people around Edinburgh can get involved in a different way. We have a different benchmark of success: for us, getting in local, non-theatre audiences is what we want to do.”
For the director, performing in a gym is not about making a fashionable nod to site-specific theatre but a way of connecting with a community. To make theatre relevant and politically engaging, it has to be part of a place. That’s why last year’s Fringe show, Our Glass House, which highlighted the issue of domestic abuse, was staged in a disused council house in Wester Hailes. It was an experience that fed into the latest show.
“With Our Glass House, so much we spoke about in the post-show discussions was about the representations of young women,” says Manning. “Young women especially are so often represented in terms of sex and being there to satisfy a man’s needs. We see so many images of women with hardly any clothes on and loads of make-up on.”
It is with the same sense of social engagement that she set about staging No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. Growing up in a multicultural city, she always felt the image of Muslim women as submissive and passive was a stereotype that did no justice to reality. Her hunch was confirmed when she started talking to young Muslim boxers, whose sense of themselves, their determination and their ambition, upturned all the clichés. That’s what she wanted to see on stage. “We said, ‘OK, let’s represent women as champions, who might be show-offs, who might get angry, who might be aggressive, who have got all of this in them – and let’s take them into a man’s world and inhabit that territory.’”
Written by Aisha Zia, the play draws on first-hand testimonies of British Muslim teenage boxers to explore society’s assumptions and expectations. If you think seeing female boxers in the Commonwealth Games is a novelty, you’ll find it rarer still to encounter a group of female Muslim boxers.
To help in its work, the company has drafted in Ambreen Sadiq, the UK’s first Muslim female boxer, who became national champion in 2009 at the age of 16. She’s been coaching the actors, whom the company recruited through its work in schools. “An Asian girl or woman boxing is a huge thing in our culture especially when you are Pakistani and a Muslim,” says Sadiq. “It’s seen as not very ladylike. I want to get the point across that boxing is not just for boys. I want to inspire girls from all backgrounds to do what they dream of doing whether that’s boxing or not.”
“The girls we found are unbelievable,” says Manning, who had no prior experience of boxing but has been so taken by the sport that she’s started training with Sadiq as well. “Some of them have just done drama at school, but they’re absolute naturals. They’re craving the opportunity. Most of them are studying science, but then they’re really strong artistically and are really strong performers. It’s something that’s completely within them and they’re really happy to be able to fulfil that part of them.”
Rehearsals proceeded with caution during July when the actors were fasting for Ramadan, so most of the toughest physical work has been done since then. Spreading the love, they’ll be running boxing workshops for women in Edinburgh during their stay. “We’re trying to represent the full experience of what being a Muslim girl means,” she says. “We’re not deliberately tackling big Muslim subjects, because we feel it’s enough to present these strong female role-models and give them a platform. It’s very positive. In the press, you always hear about people with extremist views, but there’s a very liberal Muslim community who don’t really have a voice and feel very misrepresented. We need to look at our assumptions.”
Although the show focuses on a group of Muslim girls, it highlights the way attitudes are changing towards women’s sports in general. Boxing is typically associated with male aggression, but Manning says its appeal is much broader. “You find this thing within you that you want to release. A contact sport is a massive release because you throw a punch, hit the punch-bag and get the feedback straight away. It is in women that we want to do that, regardless of culture. Boxing is just another way of expressing emotion. Doing this show has changed my perception of boxing. I can totally see the value of it.”
Created as a kind of antidote to Our Glass House, which highlighted cases in which women are victims, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory seeks to present positive, aspirational female images. In that sense, it is less about sport than about people claiming power over their own lives. To triumph in boxing is just one of many examples of what young women can achieve.
“Boxing is more of a metaphor,” she says. “We’re not necessarily doing a show about boxing or about being a Muslim woman, we’re doing a show about the experience of being young, fearless, standing up for what you believe in and living how you want to live. Meeting people like Ambreen and the other boxers, we’ve been so impressed by their dedication and commitment to the sport. We’re hoping we’ll inspire young people to believe in themselves.”
No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, Sandy’s Boxing Gym, Craigmillar, 18-25 August, more info
Originally published in The Scotsman
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