Fathun: The Paralymic Athlete Who Never Gave Up

Discrimination is the act of mistreating a person unfairly because of they are or because they possess certain characteristics. First observed by the United Nations on 1st March of 2014 and then as an annual event, a ‘Zero Discrimination Day’ is celebrated in all parts of the world with an aim of promoting equality before the law and in practice. The day is also dedicated to taking action to end the inequalities surrounding income, sex, age, health status, occupation, disability, sexual orientation, drug use, gender identity, race, class, ethnicity and religion etc. that continues to persist around the world.

On Zero Discrimination Day 2021, we bring you the story of Fathimath Ibrahim – commonly referred to as Fathun – who have faced and continue to face discrimination at many levels in hopes of encouraging people to practice equality and acts of kindness – with hope of creating awareness that discrimination still happens and that it needs to stop.

Born visually impaired, Fathun is from Hinnavaru in Lhaviyani Atoll. Despite her disability, she always aspired to live life as normally as she could. Hence, she enrolled to school, just as everyone her age in her island. The school life is some of the best times in our life, however, for Fathun – this was not the case. Due to her disability, she was made to sit separately from her classmates – outcasted. Not only was she a victim of bullying from her classmates, she was given the same treatment by her teachers who should have been there for her.

During that time, students who were visually impaired were only able to study up to Grade 7. However, Fathun was determined to complete her O’ Levels and create the opportunity the future generations who would share her fate. She refused to accept the limits set for the visually impaired by the community and was ready to fight against it with support from her family, especially her mother. Fortunately, she was permitted to be admitted to Grade 8. With immense effort from her family and endless letters to the Ministry of Education, for the first time in Maldives, a visually impaired student was sitting the GCSE O’ Levels. As ecstatic as Fathun was, there was a downside to this as well. The arrangement for visually impaired students to sit exams comprise of a guide who would write for them. Fathun notes receiving comments from such guides complaining as to how difficult the task was or how their hands hurt from all the writing they had do and blamed Fathun for it, which hurt her a lot. Furthermore, she herself faced difficulties by having to repeat her words and often not being able to say it the way she has framed in her head or have said before.

Nevertheless, today, numerous visually impaired students sit for their GCSE O’ Levels in the Maldives and not to mention pass with flying colors – something that makes Fathun very happy.
After the completion of GCSE O’ Levels, with no opportunities to further continue her education in the island, she began volunteering and helping out her mother with tasks. She became a part of an NGO based in the island, the Human Club, and carried out work as a member. Eventually, the Red Crescent movement reached the island and she became a volunteer for the organization where she was given training on such things as first aid, psycho-social support, emergency response etc. When the Blind Association was established in the Maldives, she became a part of it too.

Eventually, Fathun moved to the capital Male’ City. Fortunately, she was offered a job opportunity at Maldives Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) as a Customer Relations Officer, at where she still continues to work today.

The story of athletics and Fathun falls here. Fathun was offered the chance to run at a running event conducted by the Bank of Maldives Plc (BML) in which the profits made from the run were supposed to be donated to the Blind Association. Under the view that this donation could help people like her, she joined this run effectively making it the first event she had ran at. Afterwards, Fathun was a common face at running events, especially charity runs. During these events, people would often stop and pester her and her guide with negative comments and questions which slows down their speed. They would tell her that as she is blind that there was no point for her such things as running and that she should just stay at home. People also often complained when she finishes faster than them, including professional athletes. Fathun also recounts an occasion where she and her guide were followed and verbally harassed in a run by a participant.

When she came to the realization that she could become a long runner, she eventually decided to train with a professional coach through an academy and began running 5k, 10k and half marathons. She is the first visually impaired runner in the Maldives to a half marathon. She had also represented Maldives in international Paralympic running competitions. She does however mention that she had been unable to participate in a competition once for being a female runner. Recently, she ran at the Dubai 2021 World Para Athletics Grand Prix.

Fathun then had the great opportunity to begin training for the Paralympic Olympics – which is what she is up to these days along with her guide, Raba. We were lucky enough to sit down and have a conversation with Raba who described the challenges faced by her, as a guide. Raba who has been an athlete since a young age notes that her friends were skeptical about her decision to become a guide runner as they felt that she would be better off and more successful running on her own. She also stresses on the endless amounts of stares given by people when they practice in public. Nevertheless, Raba loves working with Fathun and sees her as an inspiration and hard-working figure. Other difficulties she highlights includes difficulty in navigating through people at the running track, getting use to running with tether, learning how to mimic Fathun’s movement and speeds as it is necessary to run together as one.

Whilst Fathun has achieved great strides as a Paralympic athlete, she has also ventured into diving recently and even had gotten an open water diving certification. Whilst she continues her full-time job, she is also an active volunteer at seven NGOs based in the Maldives. She stands testament to the fact that one’s disability or gender is not limitation to their life. Generally, she is such a strong person who have successfully overcome so many challenges and achieved great things that people would have openly expressed that she would never be able to.

Fathun is extremely thankful towards her mom, for being her role-model and for training her as a person that is capable of being able to live alone despite her disability. She is also thankful for her coaches and those who have been her guide, along with Raba and her parents for their constant support. 

(Photos: Fathun & Raba)