Page last updated at 03:45 GMT, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Muslim and Sikh boxers fight to overturn beard ban

By Catrin Nye
BBC Asian Network

Mohammed Patel
Mohammed Patel has been stopped from fighting because he has a beard

Muslim and Sikh groups are challenging a ruling which bans amateur boxers from the ring if they have a beard.

The Amateur Boxing Association of England (ABAE) recently ruled that all fighters had to be clean shaven to allow cuts to the face to be seen.

It came after Mohammed Patel, a 25-year-old bearded Muslim boxer from Bolton, was stopped from competing last January.

At the time, ABAE rules stated only Sikh fighters were exempt, so the Bolton Council of Mosques challenged the ABAE on Mr Patel's behalf.

Inayat Omarji, of Bolton Council of Mosques, is challenging the ban
Mohammed was actually very upset, he said 'I was that upset... I went straight out to the takeaway and got myself a big doner kebab'
Inayat Omarji, Bolton Council of Mosques

But the ABAE then ruled all competitors had to be clean shaven, a decision both Muslim and Sikh groups want reversed, particularly as professional fighters have been allowed facial hair for more than 20 years.

Inayat Omarji, Children and Young People's manager at Bolton Council of Mosques, told BBC Asian Network he is fighting on behalf of Mr Patel, who has been left disheartened by the row.

"Mohammed was actually very upset," said Mr Omarji.

"He said 'I was that upset, I trained for it, I did all my diets and everything and when I heard I went straight into the takeaway and got myself a big doner kebab'.

"That is a big thing because when a young lad actually starts boxing, he has to have... mental and physical fitness... he was really, really down.

"It has raised the awareness of different people who have different religious commitments, cultural commitments.

"And in this day and age, they have to accept and work with the different communities."

'Petty go'

Dr Indarjit Singh, director of the Network of Sikh Organisations said: "I was astounded that they should make a ruling that is so insensitive, knowing that it will disadvantage at least one religious community.

"It's such a petty go at the beard. It's a sport and it has some risks but the hair does not really in any way increase those risks.

"It's a perverse retrograde step that should be challenged."

It has nothing to do with race, only health and safety
Barry Jones, Amateur Boxing Association of England

But the ABAE's national child protection and equity manager, Barry Jones, said the rule was there to protect boxers.

"The ruling has come from our international governing body - the International Amateur Boxing Association. It has nothing to do with race, only health and safety.

"Our medical commission have deemed that facial hair can cause abrasions to opponents faces... and most importantly doctors say clean shaven athletes allow them to see cuts during the fight.

"Cuts aren't allowed in amateur, Olympic-style, boxing. We are completely different to the professional circuit."

Mr Jones conceded the previous ruling, that Sikh boxers were the exception to the rule, had been a mistake.

Lennox Lewis and Shannon Briggs in the ring during their title fight in Atlantic city, 1998
Professional boxers are allowed to wear beards in the ring

"That was five or six years ago, by a different board at the Boxing Council of England and was an error of judgement in my opinion. They didn't consider the implications.

"It's not been a matter of concern before and we have hundreds of Sikhs and Muslims in the sport - that includes of course Amir Khan and Prince Naseem Hamed.

"It's the way it is, it's not unusual for a boxer to be told to shave right up until weigh-in time."

But it is a different matter for professional boxers.

Fighters can be asked to trim facial hair if a beard is considered too bushy by the referee, but the British Boxing Board of Control said a complete ban was overturned because of the diversity of religions involved in the sport.

'Underground' boxing

At Bolton Lads and Girls Club, Mohammed Patel's fellow amateur boxers are training as usual.

One boxer, Liam, from Bolton said: "If I wanted to do boxing that much I would shave my beard off and do the boxing.

"It's nothing about my religion. You've got to respect the rules of the game."

Sheryar, a young Muslim, also from Bolton, said: "We have beards so we can't fight, that's not a good reason for it.

"You can't destroy someone's career because of his beard."

The club's boxing manager Phil Marsh said he was worried that if beards were banned from amateur boxing competitions then young Sikh and Muslim men could get in to unofficial, unregulated boxing circuits.

"There needs to be an outlet for Muslim young men that wear beards in terms of how they box competitively.

"We've got so many young people that will want to box competitively and it's finding that nice route and not driving it underground to any of the unlicensed boxing that's going on at the minute."

You can hear more at 1230 and 1800 GMT on the BBC's Asian Network Reports or via the BBC iPlayer.

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