Women and girls are breaking barriers all over the highly conservative and male-dominated Islamic world. In some cities in Pakistan they are not only driving cars, they’re riding motorcycles. In Bangladesh they are surfing, and in Afghanistan, they are rapping and creating street art. Not only do these new avenues have social and cultural value for these women and girls, but economic as well. They can now drive and ride to jobs and careers without dependence upon a husband or male relatives for their survival. More importantly, these new activities give them confidence.

Confidence is exactly what a girls’ boxing club in the rough-and-tumble Lyari district of Karachi, Pakistan is instilling in its participants:

“We want to strengthen both the mind and body,” says Pakistani Olympic Boxing Champion Syed Hussain Shah of the club, which is called Pak Shaheen Boxing Club (a Shaheen is a falcon and the national bird of Pakistan). “If you do not train both, it won’t matter how strong the girl’s body is—she’ll be knocked out in the first punch.”

Pak Shaheen got its start in 2013 when Khadijah, a 16-year-old girl who lives in Lyari, approached Hussain about teaching her to box. At the time, there were no boxing clubs or training gyms for women and girls of any age in the country. A 2012 attempt to start a National Amateur Women’s Club met with strong resistance from clerics and other hardline religious conservatives and never got off the ground. A similar attempt in 1996 failed for the same reasons.

So Hussain took Khadijah to meet his coach, Younis Qambrani, who it turned out had been teaching his own daughters to box since they were very young. Qambrani agreed to teach the young girl. Soon word spread around Lyari and others joined them for lessons in Qambrani’s home. After more than a dozen girls were in the club, Qambrani realized he needed not only to form an official organization, but to find a larger space for members to train, something he knew would not only be a challenge but would be dangerous for his students. Incidents of female athletes being attacked by hardline religious conservatives are not unusual in Pakistan and other conservative Muslim countries. In November 2015, a group of women were attacked by a religio-political student activist group on a college campus in Karachi for the simple act of participating in a game of cricket.

“Female boxers take part in competitions all over the world, but ever since the Pakistan Boxing Federation was formed in 1948, we have never had a program for women,” explained Sindh Boxing Association secretary Asghar Baloch. “This is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” Baloch further explained that any attempts to bring female players into sports like hockey, cricket, tennis or football have been met with fierce resistance.

“People get brainwashed and get stuck on details such as a male coach teaching a group of girls or what the girls are wearing while they are training,” said Mohammad Hussain Qambrani, the coach’s brother and president of the Pak Shaheen Boxing Club. “We wanted to make sure we account for this culture and don’t give such people something to complain about.”

Eventually the girls’ boxing club found a home in a small, under-construction building with just one floor, naked light bulbs, no fans or bathrooms. However, it gave the girls a private space to train, away from the prying eyes of religious fundamentalists. “For parents who feel scared about their girls coming here, these four walls serve as pardah (a veil) to outsiders,” says Hussain.

The club eventually received approximately $1,500 from the provincial government for a 10-day camp, and they recently petitioned the Sindh Boxing Association for money to buy uniforms and other equipment.

Another girls’ boxing club was recently started in a different part of the city and the two clubs plan to hold competitions against each other in the near future.

Though the girls are training hard and becoming better athletes, it all comes back to confidence. When reporters and photographers started coming to the camp to write stories about the boxers, Qambrani realized the girls in his club were meeting their number-one goal.

“If you had come here just a week ago, the girls would have been too shy to speak to you,” Qambrani says. “If we ever had visitors, they used to hide behind each other. Now, if they see someone from the media or a visitor to the camp, they come forward to speak to him or her.”

Donations may be made to the Pak Shaheen Boxing Club via the Indiegogo Campaign through this site.

Visit Pak Shaheen’s Facebook page here.