The students knelt beside aspiring boxer Amaiya Zafar and peppered her with questions about her sport and about where she lives. Then they glanced at her head and asked, "So you can't fight until you take that thing off?"

That thing is the hijab Zafar wears. And no, according to the rule book, she can't fight in a USA Boxing-sanctioned event until she takes it off.

Zafar, a Muslim teenager from Oakdale, has been waiting nearly two years for an official fight since first seeking a rule change in 2015. She almost caught a bout in Florida in November, only to have it called off as she put her gloves on. So she keeps practicing at a south Minneapolis gym and, with her coach's encouragement, working to inspire other young boxers and Muslim women athletes.

"I love my religion with all my heart, but I love boxing with all my heart," said Zafar, 16, who wears a tightfitting sports hijab, long-sleeved shirt and leggings under her tank top and shorts. "I don't have to compromise one for the other and that's what they are asking me to do."

USA Boxing officials say it's a question of safety. Boxers must wear only a sleeveless jersey and shorts, officials have said, so everyone has a clear view of fighters' arms and legs.

"The focus of our work will be in regards to the health and safety of all boxers while respecting their right to compete," said Mike McAtee, USA Boxing's interim executive director.

Amid the standoff, many in the community have rallied around Zafar. At the Florida bout that was canceled, the teen declared the winner opted to share her victory with Zafar. Earlier this year, Shirzanan, a New York media and advocacy organization that works to make Muslim women athletes more visible, enlisted Zafar as their youngest ambassador.

"Amaiya shouldn't have to fight alone for a chance to get in the ring," said Mara Gubuan, acting executive director of Shirzanan.

Desire to compete

Zafar entered the world of boxing after a family conversation three years ago. Her father suggested she take up fencing. She told him she would rather be punched in the face. Weeks later, she started working out in her parents' garage, training and watching tutorial boxing videos.

The sport quickly became the centerpiece of her life, but it hasn't been easy to go years without a fight. She has made several unsuccessful attempts to get a fight locally.

Many events are sanctioned by USA Boxing. Her supporters say boxing officials have "blacklisted" her. Local boxing agencies argue they can't find a boxer in her weight class — Zafar stands 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 106 pounds.

"It doesn't make sense," Zafar said. "But one thing is that it definitely made me stronger. No, I'm not going to take off my hijab, and when I say that, that's empowering."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, has gotten involved and pushed USA Boxing to request a temporary waiver from the International Boxing Association to allow Zafar to box in a modest outfit. They haven't received a reply, said Jaylani Hussein, CAIR's local executive director.

"She is someone who's interested in a sport and wants to compete just like everyone else, but because of her faith and religious requirement to be modest she's being denied this opportunity and that's unfair," Hussein said.

Gubuan, of Shirzanan, said the group has hired a human rights lawyer to look at overturning rules that discriminate against Muslim athletes in boxing and other sports.

"Observant Muslim athletes need to be covered and there should be some kind of allowance," Gubuan said.

Fighting for others

On a recent Tuesday, Zafar trained for hours, sparring and punching bags at the Circle of Discipline, a garage-turned-gym in south Minneapolis mostly filled with men. When she's not boxing, her coaches have encouraged her to get more involved in the community, talking to students about her sport and leading workouts for others.

"My family, my team and the work I do every day keeps me motivated to keep fighting," Zafar said.

Her coach, Adonis Frazier, said he notices her growth. She went from boxing to attending speaking engagements and now has a world of people in her corner, Frazier said.

"It's not about Amaiya anymore," he said. "Her fight is going to be about people."

Zafar says she has no plans to back down and wants to continue encouraging young people to pick up boxing.

"Even if I don't get to fight, the next generation will fight," Zafar said. "I will make sure I get them ready."

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203