This week Samera Ashraf, a 31 year old Martial Arts competitor who lives in Edinburgh tells us about her life in the world of martial arts and the work she does within the Asian community to encourage others to participate in sport and physical activity.

Most of my friends are shocked that I compete in Martial Arts as I am only 5ft 2 and they tell me I do not look physically intimidating! I enjoy training and competing and I generally get supported by those around me which means a great deal, as I know that my friends believe I am capable of competing.

I am a blue belt in kickboxing and karate. I have been training in martial arts for over 10 years and have competed in regional and national competitions. My greatest achievement was qualifying for the world championships in two consecutive years from 2010. However, due to a lack of funding at the time and a commitment to two jobs, I was unable to attend.

I love martial arts, but I have found it fairly expensive. Whilst self funding my college and university degrees I had to buy club uniforms, club regulated equipment, pay for gradings, competitions and travel to and from competitions. This is definitely a challenge of training and competing, but it is doable and I managed.

In June 2014 I was awarded the Asian Women’s Award in Sport. Since then I have been lucky enough to get involved in the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust as a volunteer.

10273954_551294431656399_3195253864699621116_nDame Kelly Holmes presented the award to me and I had the opportunity to tell her what an inspiration she has been to me. Following the awards ceremony I was contacted directly by the Chief Executive of the Trust who expressed her wish to have me as a part of their team of mentors who work with young people. I was excited to accept this opportunity and started networking with elite athletes who work tirelessly to assist in the various programmes which enable young people to improve their employment and life skills.

My first professional role as a mentor was during the Commonwealth Games were I was asked to assist in the Young Leaders Programme. The young people were involved in the opening and closing ceremonies, assisting the various organisations stalls in Glasgow Green such as UNICEF, helping at various events and individual games. They worked well together as individuals and as
part of a group. I really enjoyed working with the young people and I learnt so much from each and every one of them; they inspired me. All of them have so much potential and positive spirit despite the difficulties they face within their personal lives.

Since 2008 I have worked with women who are victims of domestic violence. Many of these women are not British born and due to their domestic circumstances they are often unable to acquire the skills which can help a woman gain confidence. This sense of isolation can make the already incredibly negative effects of emotional and psychological abuse even more profound within the women I provide a service to. I have been able to positively use my martial art skills to work within a team and facilitate self defence classes to these women.

I faced cultural and religious barriers when I was younger and to be perfectly honest I feel I still do. My grandparents migrated to the UK in the 1960s. The world was a much different place back then, I understand for my grandparents and my own parents that keeping a firm hold on their heritage, cultural and religious beliefs is part of how they identify themselves. But as a British Asian, growing up was confusing as my family wanted me to keep to their traditional way of appearance and demeanour. But then I would go to school, view what was happening in the media and learn societies expectations of a British girls and I found it conflicting. The main thing that would bother me when I was growing up was how my three brothers always seemed to have more freedom than I did. I had to come straight home from school and get changed into traditional dress 'shalwar kameez' and help my mum do household chores. My brothers helped out around the house too, but they were allowed out with their friends. I remember being very naive to the ways of the world by the time I went to college and university as I did not have any exposure to life beyond the family home. This is why I try to encourage others who feel different, isolated or alone. I can relate to them on some level. And through self-defence classes I feel I can give something back.

It is important to point out that the purpose of learning and improving skills and knowledge in self defence is not to encourage the individual to go from being a victim to an aggressor. Instead it allows the individual to take a more focused approach of ascertaining how they can use their own body to defend. Having even the smallest amount of knowledge can give an element of power back to these women I have provided a service for: if the women who are being abused feel they are less afraid it can help to empower them.

As an Asian woman I feel it is important to encourage South Asian females and males of any age or size to take part in sports. The level of health promotion within previous generations has not been particularly high and it is known that this is likely to have an impact on how future generations may view health and overall fitness. It has been established within government health reports that the prevalence of diabetes and heart related health issues are high within the South Asian communities in the UK. As a result this is now an identified target group for health promotion and interventions. When successful, health campaigns can assist in maintaining positive family connections to encourage children and adults to get involved in fitness and healthy eating. I have noticed a higher amount of health promotion targeting my generation and I believe younger people are becoming more aware that simple changes in diet and lifestyle choices in particular can help to reduce the risks associated with the above health issues.

10251926_545834012202441_6164606914887029788_nAmongst training and work, I co-host Edinburgh’s only weekly Asian radio programme on a community radio station. We have been on air for over two years. Within that time we have had the opportunity to look at issues affecting British Asians today. To encourage more Asians to take up exercise regularly and engage in positive health choices we often invite guests onto the show that are knowledgeable of health promotion and inclusion in the wider community.

I appreciate that it is difficult to break down the existing barriers in getting South Asian girls and women involved in sports. This is something that I am keen to continue promoting, to show that it can be done. I hope to be a role model to other girls of any age or background to show that we can also achieve at high levels within sports. One thing I always say: believe in yourself!

If anybody wishes to follow me you can do via my Twitter account @samera_ashraf


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