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Munirah Abdiwahid on her mission to become Somalia’s first taekwondo Olympian: "I’m doing it for girls like me"


Friday July 28, 2023

By Evelyn Watta



(Picture by Somali Taekwondo)

The 21-year-old is Somalia's first ever female taekwondo athlete to compete internationally, and she's now got the eye for the Paris 2024 Olympics, and more.

When six-year-old Munirah Warsame Abdiwahid started practicing taekwondo, she never imagined that her choice of sport would make history.

The British-born Somali practised the combat sport with her brothers at a local club. And she loved it.

Her passion for taekwondo even drew in her mother to the dojang.

Aged only 15, Munirah Abdiwahid won her first cap for the Somalia national team, the country’s first professional taekwondo female athlete.

She is now fighting to become the first-ever taekwondo athlete from her home country to qualify for the Olympics.

But Abdiwahid’s Paris 2024 quest and goals goes beyond chasing history.

“What inspires me is I am doing it for girls like me that don't have the opportunity,” she says in an exclusive interview with Olympics.com from her home in London.

She’s among the new generation of Muslim women in sports challenging stereotypes, and aims to inspire more Somali women to take up combat sport.

Munirah Abdiwahid on her pursuing her childhood passion

Like millions of other Somalis, Abdiwahid’s parents fled their home country, escaping political instability and civil war.

They settled in England, an opportunity their young children fully explored.

The British-born Somalis freely engaged in sports, an indulgence that is highly uncommon in Somalia, due to religious and societal pressures, and the fear of the militant Islamist group Al-Shabaab. The religious extremist group view sport as non-Islamic and strongly forbid women from practising sport.

When the young Abdiwahid decided she wanted to learn how to land some kicks and punches, she had a community of support in Great Britain.

"We're quite a taekwondo family,” says the 21-year-old in a chat with Olympics.com just after competing at the 2023 World Championships in Baku, her third time at the global taekwondo event.

“Me and my older brother started it together, and my little two siblings do taekwondo now. My mom did try it too, but she quit early.”

“Even at the club that I grew up in, there were a lot of Muslim hijab [wearing] girls, so I didn't feel out of space when I went to competitions because it was quite normal to have the hijab.”

There was another source of inspiration right across town, but from the boxing ring.

Somali-born Ramla Ali, who escaped the civil war as a refugee and found solace in boxing, pursued her passion to the Olympic ring at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021.

Adiwahid missed out on the ticket to Japan after reaching the last round of 16 at the 2020 continental Olympic qualifiers, and now has her sights set on Paris 2024.

Munirah Abdiwahid on joining the Somali National team: A dream come true

Like Ali, who was the first Muslim boxer to win an English title as an amateur, she opted to represent Somalia, driven to fight for more than medals.

“It is my home country, where my parents are from, and I wanted to get closer to my roots,” she states firmly.

“Somalia gives me more opportunities. And when I compete with Somalia, most of my competitions, I would go back to Africa and meet other African nations, and it just brought me back closer to home.”

The UK-based athlete first donned the blue and white colours of Somalia, at the 2018 World Junior Championships. The invitation from the Somalia Taekwondo Federation made her the first ever female taekwondo athlete to compete internationally for the East African nation.

“When I joined the national team, it was kind of like a dream come true in the sense that I got to do what I've always dreamed of,” says Abdiwahid.

“I found myself doing competitions I never imagined I'd be doing. Competing with [top] athletes, stepping on the same mats as people I grew up watching… that was a big reality.”

Her preparations though have been far from ideal.

With a skeleton support team, the criminology graduate works to fund her training sessions. But in the true taekwondo spirit, she’s embracing the journey and the challenges.

“It's very hard to train the same amount as other national teams because we train in our clubs, and then we travel to like big events. It's very hard. But it makes you work ten times harder than the people who you are against.”

The hard work nearly paid off with a medal at the 2021 Africa Championships in Dakar, Senegal, her ‘best ever’ event. She just missed the medal in the -57kg, losing to Morocco’s Nada Laaraj.

“It made me realise how much I wanted to win because I'm up against the best. And it also made me realise how hard I train and what I need to do for the next step.”

Munirah Abdiwahid on breaking stereotypes and her Olympic dream

Stepping into the limelight, Abdiwahid is aware that some disapprove of her burgeoning taekwondo career.

But the encouragement and the support she receives, particularly from the Somali diaspora community, fuels the flames of desire within her to keep fighting.

“A lot of girls have messaged me saying, ‘you make me want to take on taekwondo'… Even some parents have messaged me that they will put their daughters in taekwondo club,” shares Abdiwahid who assists with coaching some of the younger girls at her club of the encouraging messages.

“I think when I post myself doing taekwondo, they feel it's possible for them to join, or it's something that maybe they can show their parents, like, ‘she's enjoying, and she's not wearing anything that's quite revealing or clashing with religion’.”

“There are many amazing hijabi athletes and I feel like in taekwondo right now we are breaking a lot of the stereotypes.”

“I am breaking the narrative of 'a Somali or a Muslim girl should not do sport'.”- Munirah Abdiwahid to Olympics.com

The 2023 British Open bronze medallist, who describes herself as an ‘aggressive attacker’, has also upped her kicks to play for Somali at the Olympics.

She wants to medal, while following in the pioneering footsteps of Ali, and sprinter Safia Abukar Hussein, the first Somali female to compete at an Olympics, at Sydney 2000.

“It will be very, very hard. But I am determined to do it because I've finished university now, so I can join training camps and better myself,” says the Somali taekwondo player who greatly admires world champion Turkey’s Merve Dincel, and Spanish Adriana Cerezo for her ‘fighting spirit’.

“[Qualifying] would mean a lot to me, and it would open a lot of doors for Somali girls. It would probably show them like, you can do it, and probably push more girls too because our team isn't big. So maybe if I was to get to that level, there’d be girls that want to join, and we can actually build a future team.”