In this post Izram Chaudry explores how the prevalence of pseudo-scientific stereotyping in judging and refereeing endorses discrimination against British Muslim boxers.
Ever since the ascendancy of Amir Khan, there has been an influx in younger generations of British-Pakistani Muslims endeavouring to follow in his footsteps. From an Olympic silver medal to multiple world championships, Khan’s success inside the boxing ring has inspired the youth into thinking “if he can do it, so can I.” However, the rise in numbers of British-Pakistani Muslims endeavouring to emulate him has not readily translated into championship success (in both the amateur and professional ranks) as the levels of engagement are yet to be reflected amongst the elite rankings. In other words, despite the characterisation of Amir Khan as a role model and a beacon for hope (Burdsey, 2007), we are yet to see another British-Pakistani Muslim duplicate his accomplishments.
I would like to propose that this can be explained through an underdeveloped and taken-for-granted phenomenon noted by Loïc Wacquant in Body & Soul (2004), which is dubbed as “getting robbed”. The expression is used to describe dubious instances wherein a fighter is not awarded the victory despite being the obvious winner of the contest. In exploring the experiences and motivations of British Muslim’s within amateur and professional boxing, I adopted the qualitative multiple-methods approach of ethnographic observations and narrative interviews as part of my PhD fieldwork to study a sample located at an amateur boxing gym in Bradford, West Yorkshire. What rapidly emerged was how they were all forthcoming with me about their experiences of institutional discrimination within the grassroots levels of the sport. The participants argued that they were subjected to processes of racialization by referees and judges who tagged their bodies as “weak”, “frail” and unable to withstand the rigours of pugilism.
Dan Kilvington (2012) has explained these stereotypical perceptions through his conceptualization of the “Asian Frame” which foregrounds how colonial discourses have characterized the South Asian body as inferior and effeminate vis-à-vis the “white norm”. I was taken aback to hear from a (white) boxing trainer how biological and pseudo-scientific rationales were being utilized to justify and accept scientifically invalid stereotypes about the Muslim physique:
“It’s the genetics mate. The Whites right, they’ve got the grit, they’ll take shots and keep moving forward. The Blacks, they are both technically superior and they pack a punch. Asians [used synonymously with Muslims], don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the technique, but they’ll get hit and their legs and heart will go. They won’t even want to continue with the sport.”
The excerpt above illustrates a conversation that I overheard involving an amateur trainer ignominiously siding with the practices of unjust officials that led to Muslim boxers “getting robbed”. The perception gleaned was that the Muslim fighter did not have the corporeal robustness to represent and succeed for their respective regions on the domestic boxing scene over a sustained period. Untrustworthy judges and referees with prejudicial views were fearful that they risked the symbolic capital of their boxing constituencies by sending these “physically inferior” fighters to represent them on the national stage. “Robbing” them was the chosen modus operandi towards safeguarding their reputations of being the “best” and “hardest”.
Dan Kilvington (2012) has recommended that we can combat such hegemonic ideologies and dispel colonial stereotypes through greater representation that can pave the way for a generation of boxers to flourish. This is, however, an inadequate proposal. For example, the rise of Amir Khan has only served to reinforce these prejudices. Despite his years of dominance, Khan has not been able to brush off labels like glass chin” and “jelly legs” in spite of his few losses coming at the hands of the hardest hitters in the sport. He has been deemed as an exception to the rule. To suggest that representation is the answer “puts the cart before the horse” as the fighter can never assume the position of being able to quash such stereotypes. How can this practically happen when they will be set back several times along the way to the their success?
I argue that there must be an immediate transformation in the institutional cultures and conditions which enable the deleterious practices of dishonest judges and referees to go unchallenged and unchecked. Talking about Islamophobia, Salman Sayyid (2014) has understood its manifestation within institutional settings through situations where those perceived to be Muslim receive less favourable treatment than others in comparative positions. Endorsing this malaise can be facilitated through the absence of robust anti-discrimination measures, or the inclusion of Muslims within the ambit of such measures, if they exist (Sayyid, 2014). To ensure that “getting robbed” is consigned to an unjust past would involve the implementation of numerous safeguards that protect the efforts and chances of those that dare to enter the ring. These may include, but are not limited to, an appeals process where boxers/ trainers can challenge the outcomes of their contests, if they have legitimate grounds to do so; a moderation procedure that inspects the quality of officiating; and lastly, a sanctions/ disciplinary framework for those that continue to demonstrate suspect practice.
Burdsey, D. (2007) Role with the punches: The construction and representation of Amir Khan as a role model for multiethnic Britain. The Sociological Review, 55 (3), pp. 611-631.
Kilvington, D. (2012) The” Asian Frame”, Football and the Sport Media. Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, 5 (1).
Sayyid, S. (2014) A measure of Islamophobia. Islamophobia Studies Journal, 2 (1), pp.10-25.
Wacquant, L.J. (2004) Body & soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Izram Chaudry is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Leeds supervised by Professor Nick Emmel and Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli. His doctoral work focuses on the motivations and experiences of British Muslim amateur and professional boxers.