Wed, Oct 31, 2018 - Page 16 News List

Female wrestlers take on rivals and tradition in Iraq


Female wrestlers practice at a gym in Diwaniyahh, Iraq, on Oct. 7.

Photo: AFP

Sports teacher Nehaya Dhaher was living a quiet life looking after her elderly mother in Iraq’s tribal south when she was asked to set up the country’s first women’s wrestling squad.

Taking on a sport largely reserved for men in a region with strict traditions was quite a challenge, but one that both Dhaher and young female sports fans embraced.

“Recruiting wasn’t a problem,” said 52-year-old Dhaher, a tight blue hijab framing her round face. “On the other hand, it’s been difficult to convince society, because our traditions aren’t really headed in this direction.”

Dhaher was working as a school sports teacher and trainer at a sports club, but never imagined that one day she would be coaching a group of young female wrestlers in her conservative city of Diwaniyah.

However, when the Iraqi Wrestling Federation approached her two years ago with the opportunity to lead the team due to her proven track record with women athletes, she leaped at the chance.

To start off, she found five volunteers at her local sports club to train the al-Rafidain (“the two rivers”) squad, whose name pays tribute to Iraq’s mighty Tigris and Euphrates.

Today, the team has about 20 members aged 15 to 30 who train three times a week in two-hour sessions after school hours.

On a broad blue mat with a red circle at its center, the wrestlers tumble with determination under the watchful eye of Dhaher, wearing a gray tracksuit.

The gym’s windows are thrown wide open to ease the stifling heat. Dressed in an assortment of shorts, tights and T-shirts, the young women alternate between stretches and sparring drills.

However, when training ends, the wrestlers file out of the building in long robes, most of them wearing headscarves, seamlessly blending into a city in which most women are cloaked in black.

“Here, the tribes rule the lives of all. I’ve received direct and indirect threats, but we’ve managed to win respect,” Dhaher said.

To do so, they have had to put in more effort than the average coach, said 47-year-old Nadia Saeb, Dhaher’s assistant.

“We’ve built bonds of trust with the wrestlers’ families,” she said. “We look after the girls, picking them up from their home before practice and returning them afterward. We even follow up on their schooling.”

The approach has paid off.

At first unsure of what to make of the sport’s new female competitors, Diwaniyah residents today come out to support the team during competitions, Dhaher said.

Al-Rafidain’s success has pushed others elsewhere in Iraq to try the same, with women’s teams popping up in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk and in Basra.

As the sport gained popularity across the country, “little by little, people finally accepted us,” said Alia Hussein, the team’s star who sports a stylish short haircut.

In September, she won a silver medal at the Women Classic International Tournament in Beirut in the under-75kg category.

Her mother, who has adorned their modest family home with Alia’s trophies alongside paintings showing revered Shiite imams and figures, has always been supportive.

“We’re sure of what we do, so people can say what they want — we don’t care. We haven’t done anything wrong, so no one has the right to say anything,” she said.

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