One after another, they keep coming at Ann Osman.
They spar, grapple and kick but each man and woman who takes on Osman is slammed decisively onto the sweat-stained floor.
And this is just training.
Osman is gearing up for her fourth professional cage fight, also known as mixed martial arts (MMA). Notorious for their brutality, these fierce encounters often end with blood splatters on the mat and knock-out blows.
But for Osman, a youthful 28-year-old from Kota Kinabalu, capital of Malaysia’s Sabah state, it’s a “beautiful art”.
“Once you’re in that cage, it actually reveals your true self,” she tells Al Jazeera. “Are you a fight or flight kind of person? For me, I’m a fighter.”
Female, Muslim and Asian, Osman has obliterated many stereotypes on her way to becoming Malaysia’s first professional female cage fighter.
Mixed martial arts is attracting a slowly growing band of female followers around the world.
Once you're in that cage, it actually reveals your true self. Are you a fight or flight kind of person? For me, I'm a fighter.
But Osman is one of few Asian women joining this male-dominated sport, where fighters use techniques from various martial arts, from karate and kung fu to jujitsu.
The 28-year-old has become an unwitting ambassador for the sport and, in the process, a role model for many Asian women.
“She is really inspiring,” says Dharma Arsyad, who was inspired to take up mixed martial arts after seeing Ann fight.
“She is a superwoman.”
Yeow Lim Chet, owner of HIT Fitness and Martial Arts gym in Kuala Lumpur, says women now make up 40 percent of his clients, a trend he attributes to Osman’s success.
“A lot of them who come here for fitness, first thing they do is ask, ‘I saw the fight – Ann Osman. I want to try it,'” he says.
“I think she’s very brave, especially when we are from a Muslim country […] She wants to open up opportunities for other Muslim women.”
From hobby to obsession
To the uninitiated, cage fighting might look like a free-for-all, but there are rules: no manipulating the fingers; no hitting behind the head; no eye gouging, hair pulling, biting or kicks to the groin.
The rest is fair game.
“You can kick to the head when they’re on the ground, you can knee them to the head,” Osman says. “You can’t stomp them in the face or stomp their body, but you can basically do everything else.”
Osman, a descendant of Sabah’s notorious Dusun headhunters, had an active, outdoors childhood but only took up mixed martial arts four years ago after trying Muay Thai.
Her mother had encouraged her to take self defence classes after she was tailgated driving home from work late at night, and Osman thought the sport would be a good way to stay fit.
What started as a hobby quickly became an obsession.
Osman now juggles five hours of training a day, seven days a week, while running her own tourism business.
When she became the first Malaysian woman to secure a contract with ONE Championship, Asia’s largest mixed martial arts organisation, her sole focus was on taking her fighting to the next level.
But she soon realised there was more to it than just stepping into the cage. Women started writing to her, telling her how she had inspired them to take self defence classes.
“One girl that was writing to me said she was in an abusive relationship and when she saw me fighting it really inspired her to leave that relationship, which to me really meant a lot,” she says.
“I didn’t realise what I was doing was actually changing other people’s lives, especially women’s.”
The difference in self-confidence was significant, especially combined with a desire to learn more. However, more important was a confirmation of self-worth that came through Ann.
Beyond the cage
Osman’s growing profile is taking her beyond her native Malaysia.
She recently travelled to Cambodia to help teach self defence to about 160 sex trafficking victims while volunteering for Agape International Mission, a Christian humanitarian aid organisation.
Don Brewster, the group’s founder and executive director, said self-defence training was now a regular part of Agape’s programme for trafficking victims.
“The difference in self-confidence was significant, especially combined with a desire to learn more,” he says of the young women who took Osman’s class.
“However, more important was a confirmation of self-worth that came through Ann.”
With one in three of the world’s women likely to experience some form of abuse, Osman believes self-defense skills can give women the confidence to protect themselves.
“We can’t keep a bodyguard with them 24 hours to stop this thing. They have to learn how to protect themselves,” she says.
In Kenya, teaching self defence to impoverished adolescent girls helped reduce the incidence of sexual harassment by 65 percent, according to research by No Means No Worldwide, a violence prevention organisation.
But some argue that requiring women to learn self defence as a solution to preventing assault unfairly puts the onus on women and absolves men of their responsibility.
Suri Kempe, a programme manager with Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian Muslim women’s rights group, says self defence is only “half the story”.
“We need to address where this insecurity comes from, from the fact that women are being attacked, in a large part, by men. We need to address behaviours, we need to address violent behaviours, and the state needs to gear its programmes towards that end,” she says.
While she admits she’s not a fan of cage fighting, Ms Kempe recognises that role models like Osman can empower women.
“She is leading the way towards female involvement in areas that they are typically not involved in,” she says.
In the weeks leading up to her March 13 fight against Walaa Abbas, Egypt’s national kickboxing champion, in Kuala Lumpur, Osman’s gruelling training regime is punctuated by a relentless round of media engagements, from a women’s television variety show to a photo shoot for a men’s magazine.
As Osman dons revealing outfits and has her hair and make-up done, she jokes: “Fighting is much easier than this – seriously.”
She accepts that the promotional work is part of being a fighter. But Osman says female athletes are often objectified for marketing purposes and admits she is sometimes uncomfortable with things she is asked to do.
“If I feel it’s out of line I just have to put a stop to it, and people have to understand,” she says.
She receives many encouraging messages on social media but there are also critics who make references to her religion and gender.
One recent post read: “I’m proud of you as a Malaysian, but as a Muslim, not so much.” Another described her as “eye candy”.
Osman says she has learnt to ignore the negative comments.
“It’s not nice stuff, but I know who I am. I know it’s not true, so I don’t let it get to me,” she says.
Ms Kempe, from Sisters in Islam, views the criticism as a gender issue, rather than a religious one. She says male Muslim athletes are never told to cover up.
“Why are women being held to a different standard than men are? […] It’s a double standard,” she says.
While she admits some comments can be hurtful, Osman’s tenacity leaves her well-placed to counter challengers both inside and outside the cage.
“In my first fight I was kneed 30 times in my abs. But I just kept going forward. My second fight, I was being punched endlessly but … I wouldn’t run away,” she says.
“For me, that adrenaline rush, it’s […] why I keep coming back into the cage, why I never say no to a fight.”
For more on Malaysia’s Woman Warrior, tune into Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme from March 20 @AJ101East.
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