A gloved hand at the end of a muscular brown arm does its urgent business. The fighter weaves around the opponent in the ring, ducks, anticipating blows, and chooses the precise second to advance. Another thrust at the challenger’s gut – bam-bam! How many punches have the burnished arms and swollen biceps thrown? How many hills have the stocky legs scaled? Bam-bam! – the fighter sends her opponent into the ropes.
Sure, Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir is not the only girl fighter in the world. It has been four years, after all, since women’s boxing became an Olympic sport. Nor is Elmir the only Muslim female fighter to enter the ring. But she is, at a guess, the first female Muslim boxer to walk alongside the glitter-plastered buttocks of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in support of homosexual rights.
Elmir’s participation in the 2016 parade may be news to some of the veiled members of her devout Lebanese Muslim family. But as Elmir saw it in the blinding moment of enthusiasm in which she signed up: what could possibly go wrong?
Her decision to join members of the American-founded reform group Muslims for Progressive Values was impulsive, as are, I discover, many of Elmir’s actions.
“I’m not homosexual,” says the 33-year-old, “but I am 100 per cent supportive of homosexual rights and [homosexuals’] freedom and liberty to do whatever they choose to do.”
She is aware, of course, that homosexuality in certain Muslim countries is punishable by death. Taking part in a display of sexual exhibitionism, flouting Muslim taboos, is no small declaration. Elmir admits: “I am reckless. I didn’t even think it through until afterwards”, at which point the boxer asked herself: “What could potentially come from this…?”
She mentions, casually, an appearance some years ago as cover girl for a gay magazine. In the telling, Elmir gurgles a deeply wicked laugh, which conspires with fiery eyes to light a fuse.
“It doesn’t even worry me that some people may think I’m gay,” she says. “I kind of like that.”
The truth is that Elmir has a highly developed taste for controversy which, like the vampire in the attic, needs regular feeding.
“I’m scared of ordinary,” she says, when we meet in her home town of Canberra, which is, of course, the nation’s largest catchment area for public servants – a breed often seen as, well, ordinary.
“I’ve always tried to rebel against the Canberra culture,” says Elmir, “against people going to work every single day, and wearing the same clothes, and having the same conversations, and eating the same food.”
The way Elmir tells it, she has deliberately positioned herself on the fringe.
“I’ve always thought that I’m not ordinary at all,” she says, begging the world to recognise her singularity: “Please can you just recognise that I’m different? I’m different. I’m different! And I’ve pushed it so hard,” she says, sighing.
A little sadly, Elmir adds, “But obviously, I’ve remained here. There’s a contradiction there for me and I haven’t worked it out yet.”
Elmir spends a lot of time working such things out. For a person whose life passion is punching people, she is surprisingly taken with self-analysis. The insights acquired in a favourite “spiritual wellbeing” podcast, along with a range of self-help literature, have helped her come to terms with the fringe-dweller identity she has assumed. Asked about her broader reading habits, Elmir mentions the Persian mystical poet Rumi, whose massive work of spiritual couplets is described by the Britannica as “an encyclopaedia of mystical thought in which everyone can find his own religious ideas”.
Bianca Elmir, a self-described “highly energised and combative character”, sits opposite me in the shade of a café courtyard on a blazing hot Canberra day. Her shoulders are misted with sweat after a long walk. She is on rations before the selection event to be held in Perth for the World Championships; she will fly across the country in a few days’ time. I retreat indoors to order drinks, but Elmir moves to a nearby bench to offer herself up to the sun’s brutality.
When I return, she is a lizard smiling, drawing in the throbbing heat, mixing up pleasure and pain. “I love it!” she declares, eyes closed, head lifted in adoration of the sun.
Elmir started with kickboxing as an 18-year-old. She hated team sports. “I didn’t want to be like anyone else… I didn’t want to go chase a ball because those 11 people were chasing it – like, that’s boring!” Elmir says.
She was, and remains, a one-of-the-boys kind of girl. “I always wanted to just be rough,” says the fighter, “so throwing, or punching, or kicking something was easy…. I felt straight away, as soon as I hit something, ’Wow, that felt great!’ says Elmir, slapping a fist into her hand. “And I’d always been a bit violent.” At 27, drawn to the idea of Olympic competition, Bianca Elmir switched to boxing.
She is in the process of dehydrating her 1.57m (5’ 2”), 57kg body, consuming a diet of Rice Bubbles, white bread and protein shakes. It’s Monday and she must lose three kilos by Friday to make weight in the 54kg division. Her coach, she confesses sheepishly over a break-out coffee, is not completely aware of the extent of the task. The event, in Perth, will determine who will advance to the World Boxing Championships in Kazakhstan in May.
It could have been Rio in August for Elmir, but for a not-so-funny thing that happened on the way. When the boxer, who had previously set her sights on the 2012 London Games, returned to Australia in February that year after a period of training in the northern hemisphere, she fell into a ditch. Not literally, but the effect of what happened to Elmir was the same as collapsing into a black hole. When, on her return from Europe, the boxer won the 51-kilo division at the February 2012 Australian Boxing Championships in Hobart, ASADA (the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority) came calling. It found traces of banned diuretics in her body.
Elmir’s blunder was to have taken medication that she says was offered by a friend to reduce swollen ankles on the flight back from Europe. She was stripped of the championship title and banned for 12 months, the ban knocking her out of contention for the London Games. Elmir’s coach Garry Hamilton says ASADA’s continued testing of Elmir set her back not one, but two years. Hamilton maintains ASADA, with its persistent and ongoing testing of his charge, destroyed Elmir’s Olympic hopes and likely contributed to her failure to qualify for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
ASADA’s tests require athletes in all sports, including weight division sports, to drink large quantities of water in order to produce urine samples. The trouble is that on the eve of competition this can disastrously disrupt the athletes’ already punishing weight-loss and training regime. Hamilton recalls a midnight training call before an important fight. The object was “to get that fluid back out”. Elmir was obliged to don sweat bags and a sweat suit and resume training, having already finished a day in the gym.
“Two days later, she has to weigh in and she knows it’s going to be a nightmare to do it,” says Hamilton. The Court of Arbitration for Sport found Elmir had not taken the banned substances to enhance her performance. Although acknowledging Elmir should have checked whether the diuretics she took were allowed, Hamilton says: “She wouldn’t cheat; her ego would not let her cheat. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself.”
Men take part in Olympic competition in any one of 11 weight divisions, but for women the rules permit only three: 51kg, 60kg and 75kg. To keep alive the possibility of Olympic competition in Rio, Elmir pushed herself up to fight at 60kg. That hope was extinguished last November when she was beaten in a qualifying bout on the Gold Coast.
“I tried to squeeze myself into this division,” she says, “but my heart was never really in it.”
For Elmir, the boxing ring is not only an arena for battle, but also a stage.
“In the ring I feel I can be completely myself,” she declares, with a look of self-indulgent pleasure. “I am a performer,” she adds, reimagining herself in the opening scene of a fight.
“They announce my name. I’m a bit confined with the headgear… I wish I could take that off... but apart from that, I’m free as a bird…. I feel like I’m in my element, and I feel like I’m excited to fight.”
Fear? “Nah,” says Elmir. “Because unless she can physically get me down and kill me, I will continue to go... I think I’m resilient enough to withstand anything… because I’ve endured a lot throughout my years of training, and I’ve been exposed to so many different, really difficult situations, and I’ve been able to come through it all.”
Elmir’s start in life was not exactly conventional. Her Lebanese-Australian mother Diana Abdel-Rahman had married in Lebanon and moved to Saudi Arabia with her Lebanese electrical engineer husband. When the couple split, Abdel-Rahman returned to Lebanon to rejoin her parents, who had resettled in Tripoli. Although she brought her two-year-old Saudi-born daughter Bianca with her, it was decided, against the young mother’s wishes, the child would live instead with her paternal grandparents.
Abdel-Rahman’s response was to kidnap the toddler and spirit her away to Australia. That would seem to be the most straightforward part of the mother-daughter story, to which Bianca Elmir now refers as a tale of “the veiled lady and the fighting girl”.
Diana Abdel-Rahman is now a Canberra public servant, recognised in this year’s Australia Day honours for service to the Muslim community. I meet her in the same café where her daughter and I had earlier talked boxing. In place of the girl in shorts and flesh-baring sports tank top, there now sits a woman in long sleeves and hijab.
Life as a single mother for Abdel-Rahman held the challenge of dealing with the strong-willed, high-tempered girl she had brought into the world. Bianca Elmir, says her mother, was a talkative, curious, energetic, “never a dull moment” child. She tackles the subject of Bianca with an anecdote, recalling her daughter tearing up and down stairs, demanding attention as Abdel-Rahman entertained visitors at home.
“True,” she told her guests, “I have one daughter – but she is equal to four.”
Indeed, 12-year-old Bianca Elmir stirred up so much strife that her mother decided to dispatch her to Lebanon in the hope that a year with maternal grandparents might settle down the firebrand. Bianca’s own particular connection to Islam was substantially forged during that year in the Lebanese culture, which, for an Australian-raised adolescent girl, was alien.
She claims it was the faith, fortified in Lebanon, which gave her comfort during later stressful times: “I would get down on my knees and pray to God, and that act in itself empowered me. There was all this stuff going on, and all I needed to do was focus into one pathway between me and God, and nothing could break that.”
But the relationship between mother and daughter remained fractured, even after Elmir’s return from Lebanon. The tension between the prescriptions of Islam and the liberal mores of Western culture was their battleground.
“I was programmed to have these ideas of what was right and wrong,” says Elmir. “I would venture outside from my family life onto the street and into the rest of my world... I constantly saw myself as making the wrong decisions because [they were] either against the culture or against the religion. So for a long time it was… living anguish… always feeling bad about something.”
Elmir, who once worked as a teenage bartender, says: “Alcohol and boys were the number one points of conflict when it came to negotiating between Islamic values and Western values.” (In case I have missed her point, she adds, staccato: “Boys. Alcohol.”)
The discord between mother and daughter culminated in a decade-long estrangement, which ended only four years ago – around the time of Elmir’s ASADA ban. Diana Abdel-Rahman says today, “I think Bianca was the type of child that needed to have a father influence in her life.... That was the weak point in the relationship with her.”
“I think she likes to have what a father could bring… as an alternative voice to my voice. It’s sort of a stability, a strength, because Bianca’s a strong person… A father would have said ‘Enough’s enough. That’s it’.”
Coach Garry Hamilton, yelling in robust Cockney across the Stockade gym in the Canberra suburb of Dickson, takes a swipe as Elmir arrives late for training: “There are people waiting to train with you!”
Twisting the knife, he adds: “I’m sure you were on time for the Gay Mardi Gras.”
This is only the first round of the taunting banter that passes between Hamilton and his charge of six years. He is testy about Elmir’s habit of involving herself in a range of activities when her attention, he insists, should be fixed on only one.
“People that are going to the World Championships are focused on the World Championships and they’re not focused on anything else,” he says. “They eat, sleep, and breathe the World Championships.
“It’s only her who can lose or win a medal…. It’s up to her.”
Hamilton is himself a former English kickboxing champion. He is also a loud and proud member of the notorious CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union), for which he works as a legal officer. It is hard to tell whether Hamilton sees more action in the boxing gym or next door at the union’s Canberra headquarters.
Last year, the premises were raided by Australian Federal Police in connection with investigations by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. Hamilton, as a branch official, gave evidence before eagle-eyed commissioner Dyson Heydon. No less than 100 of Hamilton’s union colleagues around the country face charges as a result of the commission’s handiwork.
An oversized CFMEU Eureka flag takes pride of place at the Stockade. But on the gym floor, only hard, uncorrupted graft is in evidence. As a coach, Hamilton is amiable and droll. In one corner of the gym, a young man is pulling a hefty rope on the end of which he drags a tyre, while running back and forth. A few men pound bags that hang from the ceiling, while two boxers spar to exhaustion in the ring. The gym is Elmir’s training base, where she also gives boxing classes.
Hamilton throws Elmir onto his shoulders and jokes about trying to discover “if she’s really a bloke”. The fighter basks in the larrikinism of the place and welcomes the fact that there’s “no room for sensitivity, or taking things personally”.
“I like being the only woman, and I like that I don’t have to play to my gender stereotype,” she admits. “If there are girls in that room… I have to play to their sensitivities.”
Margaret Atcherley, a retired public servant whose bond with Elmir has grown since the boxer’s childhood, tells me about her friend’s instinct for rebellion. She recalls a young Elmir arriving at a conservative adult gathering dressed as Che Guevara. She remembers, too, the time when Elmir – whose mother was insistent that her daughter speak ‘properly’ – adopted a Lebanese street accent, addressing everyone as ‘youse’.
Laura Aoun, a Christian Lebanese-Australian teacher who 13 years ago co-founded a non-sectarian Lebanese youth group with Elmir, says of her close friend: “Bianca doesn’t quite fit the regular Lebanese profile… she’s a bit out of the box, and I think for any other person who is in the box – she’s hard to take.”
On the other hand, Aoun has been surprised to witness the chemistry between Elmir and young Lebanese men: “They have this level of respect for her. It’s like ‘Oh wow! Yeah, Bianca, you’re the boxer’.”
“It’s almost like they treat her like a male,” Aoun says. “There’s a camaraderie. I don’t know how to explain it. I was flabbergasted.”
Elmir makes occasional concessions to girliness, exchanging shorts and training shoes for frilly dresses and heels. Her other – passionate – outlet beyond the ring is dancing.
“I’m in a very aggressive environment every single day with men, so the dancing and the dresses and the jewellery… [are] very important in my balancing act,” she says.
During a recent night out clubbing, Elmir got carried away, throwing her head from side to side during hours of wild dancing. She gave herself whiplash – a distinct liability, Elmir soon discovered, for a boxer in training.
Although Elmir says she is more at peace with herself these days, she doesn’t hold back about what she sees as a lack of acceptance from some members of her own family.
“I know that they’re not fully supportive of what I’m doing, Elmir says. “I show so much flesh [and] it’s against the religion to hit someone’s face… even if someone is standing in front of me permitting me to punch them in the face.
“I’m a rule breaker.”
At a recent family gathering, the fighter looked around, thinking: “Sure, you’re all proud of me, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. But you’re looking at me sideways… All those little sly comments and remarks, it does my head in.
“‘Why are you wearing that?’… ‘Why don’t you get married?’ All these comments that over time start to drum in my head. It’s a headache.”
But Elmir is prepared to wear the consequences of the life she has carved out.
“At the end of the day, I’m a lone wolf,” concludes the boxer. “I chose this and everything that comes with that, which is judgments, being ostracised, being on the fringes, and being alone. I chose that, so I’ve gotta take responsibility.”
Elmir makes a living in community services. She has worked in women’s refuges with the disabled, with troubled youth, and also mentors young people. While she is reflexively critical of authority and regimentation, she readily admits that the “fighting environment gave me consistency and structure” at a time in life when she was “angry all the time”. Elmir and her friend Laura Aoun are setting up a program for young people based on boxing, nutrition and life training.
Elmir takes shift work because it allows her to keep up her training regimen. After surviving what she regarded as the “stifling” environment of school, Elmir gained a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from ANU. She is a onetime advisor to an ACT Greens politician. And a documentary on Elmir is in production – a crew is frequently in tow as the boxer goes about her business. The community work, she claims, keeps her ego in check.
So what’s the life plan, I ask. Elmir takes the familiar plunge into self-examination. She is not at all interested in motherhood, a fact Elmir herself finds troubling.
“Am I doing something wrong by not thinking about it, and not doing it?” she asks. “I also know older people who haven’t had children and I can see how that can lead to a level of selfishness. I note that. I recognise that. So I’m mindful that I don’t ever want to be in a position… that I became so self-consumed.”
She adds: “Even though I am that now.”
Marriage does not figure in the plan either. “I don’t have a lonely life at all... I’ve never felt like I need the company,” says Elmir, at the same time alluding, with a growling laugh, to casual male friendships: “One of the reasons why I have such a strong character right now is because I’ve had to struggle for [it] so much.”
At the Perth championships in March, the boxer made weight. She won both her qualifying bouts by unanimous decision. Elmir is now headed for Kazakhstan and the World Championships in May.
It’s the most significant recent instalment in what she likes to call “this controversy called my life”.