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Karate Champ from Brooklyn Competes in a Hijab


A whistle blows and a young woman in a white robe and black belt jabs a one, two punch and shouts “Hiyah!” The sound echoes throughout the gym.

“Keep your hands up!” her coach (and dad) commands from the sideline. Her bare feet bounce back and forth on the hardwood floor. Right foot in front of left, she strikes a high kick in the air.

Aprar Hassan,16, stands strong at 5’2. Last year she won the U.S. girls’ national championship in karate. In her bright blue and purple floral-patterned hijab, Hassan is also a trailblazer: the first Muslim girl to compete on the Amateur Athletic Union’s USA National Karate Team.

Aprar Hassan at the AAU USA National Karate Championships.

The only girl among four brothers, Hassan grew up in Brooklyn. Her father immigrated there in 1996 from Egypt, where he had competed with the Egyptian National Karate Team. She tried her first karate class at the Muslim American Society (MAS) Youth Center when she was three. By age five, she competed in the U.S. national championships for karate. Ten years later, in 2017, Hassan won her first national title.

That was in June last year, and “I was so nervous because I was like, wait what if I don’t place, what if I don’t do good, what if I mess up?” Hassan said in a recent interview.  Yet as soon as she stepped on the mat, she said, all her doubts disappeared, and her lifetime of training kicked in. Karate competitors can score points throughout a round, until someone reaches six points; Hassan won her final championship round 6-5, knocking her opponent to the ground with a forceful punch after just two minutes and 30 seconds.

“It’s an awesome thing to have a daughter and a student wearing a hijab and being part of the national team,” said Aprar’s father, Yasser Salama. Hassan credits her father with teaching her everything she knows. Salama is a full time karate sensei, or teacher, with his own dojo (karate studio).

Aprar Hassan with coach and father, Yasser Salama.

Salama coached all four of his children in karate, sometimes finding it more challenging than teaching others. One might tell him:  “Dad stop right there! You can’t make me do 100 pushups,” Salama said. “Sometimes when you push them, they don’t look at you as a coach, they look at you as a dad.”

Hassan said that having her father as coach prompts some to complain that she’s only won championships because of his stature. She quickly silences the critics: “I say no. It’s cause I work hard and I go for it.”

Hassan also occasionally gets strange looks from her opponents, who haven’t encountered a girl wearing a hijab at major tournaments. In competitions, she wears an athletic cap and a white turtleneck underneath her robe.

“I don’t really care how people see me,” she said. “It’s more like I care how I see myself.”  But her extra clothing caused problems earlier this year at the World Karate Championships in Scotland, when a judge nearly disqualified her. Hassan said the judge told her  “You know you’re not allowed to wear a white shirt under.” The problem was resolved, she said, after she explained to the judge that her modified attire was for religious purposes.

In future competitions, Hassan plans to wear Nike’s Pro Hijab, which the company says it spent a year developing and testing with the help of female Muslim athletes. Nike said it hopes to inspire more women and girls “who still face barriers and limited access to sport.”

The Nike product, introduced less than a year ago, is a recognition that more Muslim women are participating in fighting sports such as boxing, wrestling, and karate, said Gertrud Pfister, a professor at the University of Copenhagen in Demark who, specializes in exercise and sport sciences.

“They feel that they are not defenseless,” said Pfister, who has also co-authored the book Muslim Women and Sport. “I think it’s about empowerment.”

Salama said he sees more girls in the Brooklyn Muslim community pursuing karate in order to learn self-defense. In fact, nine out of 12 students in his Friday night class were girls. While some Muslim parents are protective of their daughters in sport when they reach teenage years, Salama reminds them that “wearing a hijab doesn’t prevent them from playing sports.” Salama can offer his daughter as the perfect example.

Hassan said that in order to keep up with her relentless, seven-days-a-week exercise schedule, she is in bed by 9 every night. She even practices karate during the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when Muslims are required to fast without food or water from sunrise to sunset.

Hassan fasted all month leading up to the World Karate Championships in 2018. The day of her competition was the first day of Eid, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan when Muslims break their fast. “Thank God I did not have to fast the day of my competition,” she said. “Otherwise I would have passed out.”

In addition to karate, Hassan lifts weights, runs sprints, and plays football with boys at her high school to gain upper body strength. While the majority of boys don’t mind Hassan joining, a few argue she shouldn’t be playing football with them. “The more sexist you are, the more that’s going to make me prove to myself that I can be stronger, I can be better than you,” she said. “Whether I’m a girl or not, whether I’m Muslim or not.”

Hassan also helps her dad coach other children in karate at the MAS Youth Center, the same place where she began. Her eight-year-old brother Mohab currently takes karate classes there.

“She’s the best sister ever,” Mohab said. “She helps me with my homework and we play with each other on the Wii.” After a five-second pause he asked: “Can you tell my sister all of that?”

Karate will make its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but Hassan said she probably won’t try to compete until the 2024 Olympics, in order to gain more experience in international competitions. In the meantime, she will apply for colleges next year and hopes to study sports medicine at an Ivy League university. As an honors student on the principal’s list and a national karate champion, Hassan has a gut feeling that her peers will vote her “most athletic” in their senior year superlatives.


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