Story by Sophie Alexander and Allison Merola
Photo by Arlinda Fasliu
CASABLANCA, Morocco—Catcalling is nothing new for Salma Maliki. The 23-year-old says she experiences it almost every time she leaves the house. Usually she just ignores it and keeps walking. But there have been times when Maliki has responded to her harassers—not as a frightened girl in the street, but as an international kickboxing champion.
Maliki was on her way home from a run with a friend. Several men called after them as they were crossing the street. Maliki and her friend continued walking and ignored them until one of them yanked the back of Maliki’s sweatshirt. Without thinking, Maliki spun around and punched him in the face.
“I was so mad, I just started punching him. I just focused on his face and punched,” Maliki says. As the two continued fighting, the man’s friends ran away, and finally, some nearby café goers came to break it up.
“Usually I don’t do this. It’s just when I get really mad.”
Today, Maliki is one of three women on Morocco’s national kickboxing team, and she has won over 100 fights, including several national and international competitions. In 2013, Maliki participated in the World Combat Games in St. Petersburg, Russia. But beyond the medals and awards, she says kickboxing has empowered her physically and mentally.
Paradoxically, Maliki started kickboxing when she was five years old because of her chronically poor health; both Maliki and her brother, Mohammed Reda, were often sick as children. To better manage their health, their doctor suggested that they get into sports. And that’s exactly what her father did—but Maliki isn’t sure why he picked kickboxing.
“Maybe because it was the nearest club,” Maliki laughs.
Maliki’s mother wasn’t happy about her kickboxing at first. Maliki was the only girl at the kickboxing gym when she started, and it was hard for her mother to see her fight with boys.
“They weren’t afraid to hit me back really hard. I was getting back home every time with blue eyes and injuries,” Maliki remembers.
Over time, Maliki’s mother became accustomed to the black eyes, school absences and intensive training regimen—even when it meant skipping Friday couscous, a celebrated Moroccan tradition. Throughout her adolescence, Maliki continued to make sacrifices for the sport.
“My friends were going out but I was always busy, I had to go to the club and train. We never skip a session,” Maliki says.
Never skipping a session of boxing has meant missing several weeks of school. Maliki is now in her final year of a master’s program in international trade, but she was often absent in high school. Once, after what she remembers being the hardest fight of her career, she had to immediately return home for her final exams.
“I went to that exam with black eyes and a cast on my arm” Maliki says. “Every part of my body hurt me.”
That same year, Maliki missed nearly a month of school to attend the World Combat Games in Russia. When her absences began to accumulate, her teachers contacted her father, thinking she was skipping without permission. He had to explain that he was well aware of her absence and that it was for a good reason.
Although Maliki believes the sport is becoming more popular with young women and girls, the initial reaction to her passion is often surprising. “It’s not usual, it’s abnormal,” she says.
She explains that many Moroccans still consider it a man’s sport. “It’s getting better compared to when I began training, but in every competition or national championship you will always find more women than men.”
Despite all of the challenges that come with the territory, Maliki believes the personal benefits have outweighed the physical costs. Training and fighting all her life has given her a special confidence and been a positive outlet for her emotions.
“When I am sad or angry I just go to the club and punch the bag and it goes away,” she explains.
Her perseverance has earned her a fierce reputation in the kickboxing community. “In competitions you will find people asking about me and what category I am playing in. Girls are asking about me because they don’t want to fight me,” she laughs.
It has been a few years since her big win at the World Combat Games, and there are big changes ahead for Maliki. The newlywed has plans to join her husband in Belgium and begin her career in international trade. But kickboxing will remain a part of her life.
“I will stop championships and competitions, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop training or working out,” she says. “It’s a way of destressing, a way of healing problems. When I don’t feel good I just go and run and it becomes better.”
In the meantime, she’s been working on the other side of the bag, training boys and girls at her local club as an instructor. Maliki has noticed that more girls are taking up the sport. “It was not popular [for girls] when I started, it was just for guys.”
Maliki explains that parents usually put their daughters in sports like tennis and dance. “You know, girls’ sports,” she laughs.
In spite of the challenges of a sport that is physically and mentally demanding, Maliki has words of encouragement for young girls who are considering taking up the sport. “Even if it’s quite hard for girls, it will give them self-confidence and an opportunity to defend themselves.”