REPORTER: Matthew Carney

It`s the final day`s training for the Egyptian team and the tension is building.


The pressure is on for the girls and the coaches to deliver gold. No-one knows what to expect, but tomorrow will be their moment of truth. Female boxers have come from all over Africa to Cairo to fight it out in the first-ever African championship for women. Many of the girls have needed more than their talent to get this far. They`ve also needed strength to defy the conservative Islamic communities into which they`ve been born. 20-year-old Mayada Halal comes from a Muslim village in the Nile Delta. Her family rejected the idea of boxing, and couldn`t understand why a good Muslim girl wanted to play a man`s game. Many in the village labelled it heresy, disobeying the Koran, the word of God.

MAYADA HALAL: Stupid, stupid village. Very stupid village. And my family don`t agree on this play.

REPORTER: Why not?

MAYADA HALAL: Because of condition.

To spare her family shame and humiliation, Mayada trained in secret for three years until she was picked for the national team.

MAYADA HALAL: I don`t stay there much. My village is against it, so I wake up at 7:00, go to college, then the club and when I return at 9:00, people are asleep.

Mayada says boxing has given her control over her life and she sees her role in changing how women are viewed in Egypt as straightforward.

MAYADA HALAL: This is backwardness. Any men`s sport should be for women too. The world demands men and women be alike, in everything.

The star of the Moroccan camp is 30-year-old Nadia El Said from Casablanca. She`s never fought a woman before, but for 10 years, she`s been fighting with men. In her flyweight class, she`s matched the men in both strength and fitness.

NADIA EL SAID: Istayed in the ring. I had to fight three boys. Each of them came in and out. I stayed in the ring.

It was only last year that Morocco officially let women box and it was the fight in April between Joe Frazier`s daughter Jacqui and Mohammad Ali`s daughter Laila that changed it all. On seeing the high-profile bout, the Moroccan Boxing Federation changed their laws and allowed women to step into the ring. It`s been these much-glamorised daughters that have done the most to encourage the women of Africa to get up and box.

NADIA EL SAID: I`d like to thank Laila Ali. I`d like you to pass on our thanks from all of us Moroccan women because it`s thanks to her that our Moroccan federation has been able to form a team for women. She encouraged us to take part in this sport.

Nadia is focused to win, and tomorrow will be her first chance to show what she can do against a woman. It`s the day of the tournament and the female boxers have sparked considerable interest. The event will be televised nationally, Egyptian Government ministers are present, and supporters are taking their seats. Nadia will be first into the ring, and she`s showing no sign of pre-match nerves. Nadia will be fighting Egypt`s Jihan El Said in the 48kg class. Jihan was Egypt`s karate champion and only switched to boxing a month ago. She`s a Nubian, a tribe that comes from the Aswan area. The Nubians are strict Muslims who have a warrior tradition. Jihan`s sister Samya says she has the killer instinct.

SAMYA EL SAID: She`s aggressive in the ring. When she`s not boxing she`s normal but in the ring, you can feel aggression and strength in her. It`s like she`s taking it out on someone who`d insulted her.

Nadia is also up against Jihan`s family. They`ve turned up in force to see Jihan win. She`s never lost any match. Jihan is boxing in honour of her brother Mustapha, an Egyptian boxing champion who was killed in a car crash five years ago.

SAMYA EL SAID: She wants to relive his glory.

JIHAN`S BROTHER: God willing, we want to revive Mustapha`s history.

The pressure`s on, and Jihan takes an early lead. At the end of round one, Nadia looks worried – she might be outclassed. Jihan`s brother, sensing victory, screams at her to finish the Moroccan off. But in the last round, Nadia makes a comeback and finds her rhythm. Nadia delivers a winning punch. It`s a knockout. Jihan`s family is devastated. Suddenly, boxing is serious. It can hurt and be humiliating. But Jihan`s sister is determined to redeem the family`s honour.

SAMYA EL SAID: She was upset, but I`ll push her to continue. She`s the type to be easily influenced.

Uganda makes its first appearance, and they have an impact. The heat of the competition has just been turned up. And the Egyptian officials are worried. The Ugandans look bigger and stronger.

DR ISSAM: Good building. Maybe like men and something like that. They are not ladies.

The Ugandan girl takes to the fight, and in seconds, is literally dancing around the competition. The Egyptian does put up some competition. But the Ugandan`s reach is too much. She`s announced the African champion in the 67kg class and she`s ready to take her talent to America.

IRENE: What I know is that everything is possible. I have to go to America and fight anyone who faces me. Laila, she was a fighter and was a boxer, so anytime I get anyone, I have to fight hard.

It`s left to the Egyptian village girl Mayada to restore the nation`s pride. To get this far, she`s had to oppose Islamic traditions and box in secret for three years. Mayada is equally matched in the first round. In the second, Mayada`s steady determination starts to wear the opponent down. And in the last round Mayada overpowers her. The fight is stopped. Mayada wins the African 54kg title in a technical knockout and realises a dream. But Mayada`s got to fight another battle – acceptance in her community.

MAYADA HALAL: I am very happy because I have arrived in my village.

Before greeting anyone else, she must see her mother.

MAYADA HALAL: I missed you. I`ve got you the gold.

Then it`s out to the villagers who`ve gathered to see the gold. Mayada`s mother had to struggle to bring up her five daughters. All Mrs Halal wanted to do was bring them up good Muslim girls so they would attract suitable husbands. Boxing wasn`t part of the plan.

MRS HALAL: Because her father is dead, if she sleeps away from home people will say she`s without morals and so on. I didn`t want her to sleep out, but when I went there and saw they were decent people I myself loved them.

Mayada is still very religious. She prays five times a day. She has not forsaken Islam but drawn inspiration from it.

MAYADA HALAL: I`m reading this sura of the Holy Koran which is called “Sura Ya`Sin”. Any person who wants something from God would read “Sura Ya`Sin” and ask God to grant it if it`s good, or keep it away if it`s bad.

The whole family gathers to read of Mayada`s success in the day`s papers.

MAYADA HALAL: This is my sister, she not agreed I play at boxing.

SISTER: Islam says that a woman… Should I speak? Should I continue? You won`t be angry? Islam tells us that a woman should stay at home so that men don`t look at her. How about wearing pants and doing her hair like that? In Islam, a woman shouldn`t show her hair or body or let men look at her, or whatever. That`s it.

Mayada`s success has started to change the way women are viewed in her village.

MAYADA HALAL: Many people tried to enrol their kids, but young children, not older ones. Children aged 4 to 7 go to the club to do gymnastics.

After a break of two days, Mayada will go back to Cairo for more training. And it`s her hope, like all the girls in the tournament, that she`ll be representing her country in the 2004 Olympic Games when women`s boxing will become an official sport.

Girl Fight