For Sadaf Anwar boxing is like breathing.
Worries, fears and tensions fade as the 20-year-old straps on her gloves and dances around the punching bag, shaking off beads of sweat dripping off her long ponytail.
The Afghanistan-born Anwar spent her teen years pretending to be at dance practice while secretly sparring at her school’s gym, to avoid the disapproval of her family who thought the sport was too ‘manly’ for a young woman.
For Anwar’s father, a martial arts aficionado, boxing was a sport he encouraged in his sons, but deemed too violent for his daughter.
“I’d be like ‘oh dad I want to do boxing’. He’d be like: ‘boxing, what do you mean? It’s not for you. It’s not for girls. I want your brother to be doing it.”
“I’d sit there and contemplate, like why on earth am I not allowed to do this? What’s so different between myself and my brother?”
The young rebel persisted, eventually winning over reluctant family members and even gaining new recruits among family and friends inspired to take on the sport as a hobby.
“When I go the gym I see some of my friends and they want to do boxing it kind of makes me so happy. These girls are going out their way to do what they want to do and not listen to stereotypes on what are females supposed to be doing."
Anwar spends four to five days a week training at Marsden Park’s Strive Fitness gym in western Sydney with a group of diverse women, from athletes to working mums.
Anwar says the sport is the ultimate stress-relief, helping her get over everything from a relationship breakdown to work and family issues.
The greatest joy for Anwar is taking out a male boxer. For Anwar, a petite woman, it is satisfying proof that skill and agility can trump brute strength.
“Sparring against the men and trying to take him out, it feels so empowering,” she said.
“If you have the right technique and stuff, I’m stronger... If you know what you’re doing, you can knock out a whole big person.
Anwar says her message to young girls is to ‘go for it’.
“At the end of the day, if you don’t go out there and do what you want to do, you’re never going to know what the result is."
This article is part of a SBS Life series on how culturally diverse women experience well-being and practice self-care through sport.