Nesrine Dally on strength, faith and dreams of creating a legacy to empower women through sport
Words by Shayma Bakht, Edited by Noor Alabdulbaqi
If you Google ‘Nesrine Dally’, you will immediately find images of a Tunisian-French female with a Nike hijab framing her delicate face, armed with boxing gloves, and wearing an expression that reveals her determination to shatter the cultural and gendered norms of the fitness industry. Nesrine is the master of multitasking. She is a fitness trainer, fitness tutor, Muay Thai athlete, coach, mother and wife residing in London.
For those not aware of the ways that Nesrine has reshaped and revolutionised the Muay Thai boxing scene, last year she paved the way for women of faith in combative sports, becoming Britain’s first hijabi Muay Thai athlete to compete in Thailand. The multifaceted fighter is set on her mission to change the industry from focusing on what strong looks like to what strong feels like. Nesrine works alongside Nike London, teaching career starters how to become qualified fitness instructors at the Nike training camp in Croydon, and hosts events for women in sports alongside athletes like Ramla Ali. She is an inspiration to women around the globe. Geared with 12 years as a fitness instructor, 9 years as a Muay Thai fighter, a Master degree in Sports Biomechanics and the support of her world champion husband, Salah Khalifa, Nesrine is using her platform to empower women. Together, she and her husband founded Thai Fit London, which provides both mixed and ladies-only classes, to encourage other Hijab-wearing females to step out of their comfort zones and challenge expectations.
We caught up with Nesrine to discuss her Eid sports day celebration, what keeps her motivated, how faith and fitness can coexist and her special three power tips on how to stay fit and healthy while fasting.
Eid Mubarak! We know that you hosted a sports day with Thai Fit, which you and your husband founded, can you tell us more about what the day entailed?
Thank you, Eid Mubarak! Essentially it was a family fun day celebrating the end of Ramadan. It was also about celebrating all of our members that managed to fast and continue their training during the holy month.
We wanted to invite our members and local community to come along and just enjoy some fun workouts and good food. We had several workouts on the day: including our signature Thai Fit shadow boxing class which was mainly for children- parents were also welcome to join in if they fancied it haha! We also had Kim Ngo performing her infamous Beats & Fast Feet, followed by some fun sports day games.
What else are you planning to do during the three-day celebrations?
Eid for us is mostly time spent with family, enjoying good food and great company. We had a lovely gathering on the first day of Eid with my family and mum in-law. Typically, the children are running around enjoying their new toys and parents and adults are over indulging on mum in-law’s home-made Algerian cakes.
You initially wanted to work with Olympic athletes, when did you realise that that was not what you wanted to do?
It’s funny, I envisaged myself using my sports science degree and masters to engage with elite level athletes primarily in a sports performance/ Strength & Conditioning setting. As I began working in my local area I realised there were people that I was able to have a great impact on.
Organically my interests began to extend into corrective exercise and injury rehabilitation and I found myself loving the process of getting clients pain-free and moving better. At the same time, myself and my partner started our Thai Fit classes – opening them up to the local community in a mixed and ladies-only setting. With Thai Fit we wanted to make Muay Thai a workout accessible to all and not something that was only available for people who wanted to begin competing. Martial arts and boxing can be daunting practices for many people. We knew from experience what a phenomenal physical challenge Muay Thai is and we wanted to give people easy access to it. Offering mixed and ladies only classes was something that was really important for me to ensure was a part of our classes as this is something I didn’t have the luxury of accessing when I began my journey into Muay Thai. I wanted to create the type of environment I would have loved, where women would feel comfortable to train.
What did being strong mean to you as you were growing up and what does it mean to you now?
Being strong has always meant more or less the same to me. I was an incredibly athletic child with a fierce competitive streak. I didn’t have any idea of what I couldn’t achieve. I believed I could achieve anything I put my mind to, as long as it wasn’t maths ha!
Being strong meant going full force in the direction of my dreams and aspirations and achieving all my sporting goals. I would always try to push myself physically through sports and it has always made me feel alive.
Now, as an adult, sport still is a big part of what makes me feel alive and strong and is very much how I express myself. However, I have come to realise true strength is also very much mental strength and toughness. The discipline from training and actually stepping into the ring and competing has made me uncover so much mental strength. Now I truly believe the body can achieve whatever the mind believes.
Did you have reservations around deciding to wear the hijab? Since the hijab makes both your religion and gender visible in a male-dominated industry, how do you feel that may have affected your career as a coach and an athlete?
I didn’t have any reservations about my decision, I was certain it was what I wanted to do. What I was concerned about was the impact it was potentially going to have on my career and my sport: Muay Thai. Being in an industry where body image has a big impact, I wanted to see a change in the way the industry sees a female coach. It was important for me to be a part of the change that would shift the emphasis on what we look like, and to start conversations about who we are and what we love about movement and exercise. A strong body comes in various different shapes and sizes and is not confined to a ‘look’, it’s about how we feel.
At the early stage I wasn’t sure people would take me seriously and respect the knowledge and experience I had in the field. In the end it made no difference how I chose to dress, how I practiced my religion, what mattered was the help I was giving my clients.
I also wasn’t able to imagine how I would continue fighting. There were no women in the UK Muay Thai scene wearing the hijab and competing. I decided I would be the first. Last year I overcame my fears and became the first woman in a hijab from the UK to compete in Muay Thai in Thailand. It opened a big door for me personally but I also hope it has opened many doors for women to follow and feel confident chasing their dreams.
We previously interviewed an incredible woman by the name of Asma El Badawi who campaigned for allowing Muslim women to wear the hijab in professional basketball. The ban has been lifted in 2014 and allowed players to wear hijab and other religious headwear on the field. She mentioned that although that was a win, much more is yet to be done for women in the sport. You have been in the sports industry for over a decade, how have you seen it change? And what would you like the industry to look like when your daughter is older?
Asma is such a phenomenal woman and has achieved great things so far, but like a true champion, of course she believes there is more out there to be accomplished; I would agree also. However, lifting that ban was a massive step for basketball and has opened many many doors now for Muslim women and we are all proud of her for that.
The industry has started changing quite recently I would say: last 3-4 years. We are now all able to see a lot more inclusion and diversity amongst sports coaches, fitness trainers, athletes and even in the media and advertising. In 2019 you can go to websites like Nike.com and see a Muslim girl who wears a hijab advertising the latest sportswear. This sort of visibility for women of faith is pushing the industry in the right direction and allowing young girls to see women that look like them that they can look up to. I would love for the industry to continue to offer space, opportunities and visibility for BAME women. If we want to increase the participation of sports in certain groups we need to be able to see those people being represented in sports, media and advertising.
How important do you think it is that hijabis are being promoted by world-renowned sports brands like Nike? And why choose Nike?
It is EVERYTHING! Nike were the first sports brand to open a massive door for Muslim women in sports and fitness. In a time where people like myself didn’t have a lot of options for training and competing, they created a sports hijab that would create accessibility to exercise for millions of women worldwide. Now you can see hijabi women on their website, in the campaigns, signed athletes and on the Training team being represented.
Representation is everything.
When we start dreaming about what we want to achieve it’s only natural we look around us to see who’s on that level and has achieved big things already. If we don’t see people like us, we can easily lose faith in whether our dreams are even possible. Nike is a brand that cares about making sports accessible to everyone and helping people achieve all their crazy dreams. It’s a brand that wants to inspire every athlete and celebrate what the human body is capable of doing. Many of the projects I am involved in are geared towards impacting local communities through sports and exercise. Not many sports brands commit to helping young people and local communities through sports in the way that Nike does.
How has motherhood changed the way that you practice Muay thai? How do you balance your family life with coaching and training when motivation is low?
Well my warm-ups are considerably less comprehensive now that I have less time haha! On a serious note, I still train every day, but I just need to organise my time with my husband. My husband is my trainer and a 3x world champion in Muay Thai, so we often have to just make sure we co-ordinate our diaries to make sure everyone can fit in the session they need to.
Balancing everything is all about teamwork. We have to work together on a daily basis. My motivation is my daughter, so when I’m having a bad day I just think of her and remember why I started this journey. Luckily training is not just a job or hobby for us, it’s our lifestyle. We both compete, train, live and breathe what we teach so it means we can bounce off each other for support when times get hard or motivation is low. Without my husband’s support, encouragement and killer pads sessions I wouldn’t be where I am today. He is my support system and I think it’s so important to have a partner that can support your vision.
What is your greatest achievement?
Having a family. When it’s all said and done, I consider myself truly blessed to have my little family. They keep me motivated, grounded and disciplined. The legacy I want to create is for all women across the world to be able to feel empowered and inspired through training. I also want that for my daughter. Hopefully she will be able to see that her mum has achieved her dreams and that anything is possible for her.
Three fast tips for staying fit and healthy in Ramadan that we can keep with us for next year?
1) Keep exercising regularly i.e every other day but make sure you keep the workouts shorter than your norm, less intense (cardiovascular wise) and focused on maintaining strength and flexibility. Training during Ramadan isn’t about chasing personal bests, but more about maintaining a good level of strength throughout the month.
2) Avoid processed foods high in salt and sugar, you will find yourself getting thirstier and diminishing your bodies ability to process and absorb all the good nutrients from your meals.
3) Eat nutrient dense foods. Your appetite will have shrunk so you won’t be able to eat your normal daily caloric quota so you need to ensure the foods you eat are rich in good protein, fats, vitamins and minerals to replenish and restore your body.
Thank you Nike - for connecting us with Nesrine! You can download the Nike Training Camp app for special work outs and fitness guidance.
If you would like to keep up to date with Nesrine and Thai Fit, you can follow her here