The Other Malaysia: Fighting to preserve diversity

The Other Malaysia: Fighting to preserve diversity
Story on Malaysia's Muslim woman fighter and pole-dancer: Ann Osman.

Ms Ann Osman boxes and wrestles; Ms Elina Noor pole-dances and practises the sensual kizomba and bachata dances.

Their story, the third instalment of a nine-part series on Malaysia, reveals a side to the country many of us have never seen.

Darting lightly on her feet as she threw swift, hard punches, Ms Ann Osman suddenly lunged to toss her opponent to the floor.

It was all over in a minute. Graceful yet powerful, she grinned as her opponent picked herself off the mat.

The two women were in training at a martial arts gym in a suburb of Kota Kinabalu, capital of Malaysia's Sabah state, where Ms Ann also works as a trainer.

The photogenic Ms Ann, 29, is a prominent face in Malaysia's mixed martial arts fight scene, not just because she is a professional female fighter but also because she is Muslim in an increasingly conservative country.

Muslim women are often under heavy social pressure to adopt a more conservative lifestyle.

But to some like Ms Ann, being a conscientious Muslim does not preclude her from embracing life in all its fullness.

She said when she started out three years ago, there were only two other girls in Malaysia in the sport.

Today, there are more but still fewer than 10 active in the mixed martial arts scene. As far as she knows, she's the only female Muslim professional fighter in Asia.

Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is a tough sport that demands participants demonstrate skills in at least two types of martial arts, both standing and ground fighting techniques.

It requires strength and agility. Bruises and sprains are all part of the sport.

But Ms Ann, whose specialities are boxing and wrestling, sees nothing unfeminine in this, nor un-Islamic.

She said it was about developing physical fitness, self-defence skills and confidence, and did not preclude her from observing her religious beliefs such as the Ramadan fast.

During Ramadan, her daily training sessions begin close to the end of the day, with time given for breaking fast before continuing.

"I know I have certain responsibilities, and I try to fulfil them," she said.

She added that she was lucky to be living in Sabah, where she grew up, because race relations in this state are less fraught than in peninsular Malaysia.

People also tend to be more laidback and less conservative. Ms Ann said her experience has generally been an encouraging one, barring the occasional criticism.

"You can't please everyone, but it doesn't affect me," said Ms Ann, who also runs her own tour agency specialising in outdoor activities.

Ms Ann, of mixed Dusun-Malay heritage, said her family was initially wary, more because she is a woman than because she is Muslim.

They were afraid she would suffer injuries. Fighters, she said, are trained to protect themselves.

Her family became comfortable after they saw her returning safe after each training or competition, and "now, they are my No. 1 fan".

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