Zenib Laari Inoune, an outstanding Kenpo Karate champion

Have you ever heard of Kenpo karate? A few months ago, I met Zenib Laari Inoune in Madrid, a Kenpo karate champion with an impressive track record, who tells us about her career and tells us more about this little-known sport.

What Kenpo Karate is?

Kenpo karate is a martial art focused on self-defense through different techniques to master: foot techniques, hand techniques, and blocking techniques and with different styles: the Japanese Kenpo, the Nippon Kenpo, the Okinawan Kenpo, and the northern American Kenpo.

Due to ADHD and anger issues, her father enrolled Zenib in the hope it would help her but also she could learn to defend herself. After reaching the black belt level in 2017, Zenib Laari Inoune started to compete internationally.

Karate and Kenpo Karate can be confusing so what are the differences between them? ‘Regarding the outfit, the kimono is white in karate while it is black in Kenpo karate. During the Kenpo karate fights, boxing gloves and helmet are mandatory whereas in karate it is not.

On a technical level, karate is theoretically more traditional, the postures are lower and the movements are more basic; while in Kenpo karate, the movements are more complex and technical’, explains Zenib.

The aim is to defend yourself and not to attack the opponent as respect for others is a core value. The biggest challenge Zenib faces as an elite athlete is to maintain peak performance levels. Flexibility, speed, and strength need to be constantly improved. ‘Whether it’s in competition or training when your athletic performances decline, you feel it right away ’, she says

An impressive career thanks to hard work

Zenib trains several times per week to maintain her performances, 5 to 8 hours per week when there are competitions, 3 hours when there are not. How are her training sessions going? First, she gets warmed up by running, doing push-ups and stretching. After the warm-up, Zenib practices either ‘Kata’, a series of movements to practice alone or she works with her teammates on falling techniques and pirouettes. Here’s a Kata demonstration, to give you an idea of what it is.

Then, as a way to improve her fighting skills, Zenib goes into battle with one of her teammates in a series of fights. She finishes her training with the nunchaku, to gain coordination, by throwing, running with and passing it from behind.

All her hard work paid off. In a 17-year career, Zenib won more than 80 titles in all competitions: she was twice world champion and won a couple of European championships.

Despite outstanding career statistics, earning a living from Kenpo karate is impossible. She pursued then her studies in Spanish as a foreign language. After her graduation, she now works in a vocational training center to acquire experience in teaching. Many professional athletes have still to combine sport and work as a result of not earning a living from their sport.

The maintenance of performance and the lack of professional perspective are not the only challenges she faced in her Kenpo karate career.

Zenib Laari and discriminatory experiences during her career in Kenpo karate

As a Spanish-Morrocan and Muslim woman, Zenib faced and has been exposed several times to many discriminatory situations, as when she wore a henna tattoo and was disqualified from a category at a competition. The jury considered the tattoos are non-compliant with the uniform. She protested against this decision and threatened to report them live to a television channel, present that day.

Fasting and taking part in competitions and exams can be problematic for Zenib. She had to pass a black belt test and informed the jury she was fasting and therefore her physical capacities were impacted. The board disregarded this and even made her retake the test three times, which is unusual. These discriminatory experiences have gone as far as insults. Invectives such as ‘fucking raghead’ were heard many times by Zenib.

The manager of her club advised her at the time not to talk about her discriminatory experiences and made it clear she needed to move on. Despite the lack of support and her bad experiences, Zenib regularly participates in activities that raise awareness against sexism and racism.

The fight against racism, sexism, and access to education for everyone

Zenib uses her discriminatory experiences in sport to sensitize people to racism, an important cause to her. In March 2019, she participated in one of #WeAreMore’s events, which aimed to share the various discriminatory experiences of people of color who grew up in Spain. It was an opportunity for Zenib to share some of the most striking moments in her school and sports career.

Racism is not the only social issue she gets involved in. Growing up in a rather sexist family and culture, Zenib discovered feminism at university. And so begins a whole questioning phase. As a practising Muslim, she thought that Islam and feminism were incompatible. ‘The only way to find a good balance between the two was for me to re-interpret and adapt religion to modern times’ she says.

After finding her balance, Zenib begins to get into feminism, through Kenpo karate. She raises women’s awareness of self-defense, by giving classes in different organizations. Zenib finds it important for women to be able to defend themselves, especially after seeing the stark rise in sexual assaults in Spain.

In the video below, you can see her in a socio-cultural center in Madrid, giving self-defense classes for women.

Through her sports career and her professional background, Zenib Laari Inoune is committed to the fight against racism, sexism and also to improving education quality. Zenib cares about those social issues as they impact her on a daily basis. She does not intend to give up. For Zenib, giving up would mean giving voice to those who, through their privileges, oppress others.