By Chuck Culpepper
July 11, 2016
Amna Al Haddad, an Emirati weight lifter, poses for a portrait at her home in Dubai on March 13. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
In a coffeehouse with the world’s tallest building preening from two miles out the front window, here sits another groundbreaker: a 26-year-old, female, Emirati, Arab, Muslim, competitive weightlifter with a vitality in her tone, a Hijab on her head and a herniated disk hollering from her lower back.
Not so long ago, 19-year-old Amna Al Haddad never would have guessed she would reach the spring of 2016 speaking in enthusiastic paragraphs about her unforeseen odyssey. She never would have envisioned herself just off her national team’s attempt to qualify for next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She certainly wouldn’t have imagined herself as part of a concept gaining familiarity in the Middle East in the 2010s, that of the female athlete.
“I’m seeing it unfold, basically,” she said, and 20 athletes from seven nationalities, plus those who raised them or coach them or know them, agreed in recent interviews. They said there’s less loneliness in being a female athlete in the region, even as they acknowledge that women still face significant impediments toward achieving Olympic-level excellence — entrenched cultural norms about the role of women foremost among them.
In London four years ago, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei became the last three countries to send female athletes to the Olympics. Sixteen Muslim countries from the Middle East sent a total of 158 women to the London Games, according to nation-by-nation figures compiled by the British Broadcasting Corp., with Egypt sending its largest continent of female competitors — 37 — since it began participating in the Olympics in 1912.
Just outside the Middle East, Algeria sent 21 women, including a volleyball team; Morocco sent 18; and Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi, with a silver medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, became that country’s first female medalist.
The Summer Olympics that open in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5 could see an increase in those totals. It would be a remarkable development for a region in which the idea of women competing in sports was discouraged, if not forbidden, less than a generation ago.
“It is at the birth of something,” said Fatima Adwan, a spokesman for the six-year-old Fatima Bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in Abu Dhabi, a government-backed organization aiming to increase female participation in sports, including its organization of weekly workouts routinely attended by 1,300 women.
“We don’t want to get rid of anything,” Adwan said. “The culture is what it is, and it’s a beautiful culture as it stands. We want to say that you don’t need to go against your culture to participate in sports.”
‘Never, ever, ever, ever’
Invariably, the region’s female athletes seem to have the furnace-like insides of pioneers, as if charisma might stem from endorphins. Even when shorter than average, like Al Haddad at 5 feet 2, they might talk in compelling barrages as she does, once ending a long answer with, “I don’t know what I’m saying now. Ask me a question.” They range from the ambitious to the recreational, and they often have support from governments. Here and there, they’ve renovated thinking, ignored critics in the dungeons of social media and transformed households.
“Amna has made all of us in the house love sport,” said Amira Budebs, mother of six, with Amna the second. By now, their spacious house contains the gym Al Haddad carved out of a storage room, a training area she calls “raw” and “rough” and “dusty,” with a squat rack against the wall and a silver barbell with stacked weight plates. It’s among the places where she revs herself up by listening to metal such as the American bands Papa Roach, As I Lay Dying and Disturbed.
Nowadays, a conversation around the house might feature her proud father, Salman Al Haddad, a retired oil and gas executive who keeps a gardening company, saying, “You were in the newspaper the other day,” and Amna saying, “Really, which one?” Her mother, hailing from a generation in which young women didn’t consider going to gyms, now goes thrice weekly. She smiles and says something once inconceivable: “I love Zumba dancing.”
Somehow, her daughter has waged a path that has led from the storage room to Seoul and Akron, Ohio, and Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
At a CrossFit event in Seoul in 2012, Al Haddad, as the only athlete covered in a headscarf, had the transformational experience of a camera crew following her, of strangers encouraging and congratulating her.
In Akron, mostly in 2015 after she had sharpened her focus to weightlifting, she did something rare for Middle Eastern single adults: She lived in her own apartment, learned to cook, do laundry, pay the wifi bill. She worked with a trainer she had met in Columbus, where she competed three times in the Arnold Sports Festival, and he painstakingly deconstructed and then reconstructed a technique that needed help because of her late start in the sport.
She had come to joke that, in Akron, the only two Nike-sponsored athletes she could think of were herself and, as she charmingly misstated, “James LeBron.”
In Tashkent, in April 2016, she competed in the Asian Weightlifting Championships, marvelled at the Chinese team nearby, marvelled further that the number of covered athletes had increased, from the Pakistani pioneer Kulsoom Abdullah, to the friendly Iraqi team, to one Thai athlete. She competed with her United Arab Emirates team — seven women, three men, some promising female teenagers — that came within a puny two points of Olympic qualification, then awaited the drug-testing results of the teams up ahead.
Near the end of the 10 days she had an epitome of an experience at the sports complex, on a stairwell. There, she happened across one of her 6,200-odd Instagram followers, Mohammed Simsim, the president of the Saudi Arabian Weightlifting Federation. “And he said to me, ‘Amna, you are doing a great job. You’re very well-known for your manners. Maybe, you know, I would like to have, one day, a Saudi female weightlifting team. And you could come in and teach.’ ”
If such thinking graces the officialdom of Saudi Arabia, renowned among its conservative neighbors for being far more conservative than its neighbors, then, she said, “Now, that is a memorable conversation for me! That, I could not forget, ever!”
All along, all over the place, she has seen hints of sports’ social effects. Having competed for three years running (2013-15) in Columbus, she said, “In the States it’s, ‘Oh, she’s covered, but she’s doing sports. So they’re not as oppressed as we think they are.’ ” She got thank-yous from a Kuwaiti CrossFit athlete who saw fit to compete covered, from a woman in Portland, Ore., who decided to keep going to the gym even though everybody stared, even from Saudi husbands whose wives had joined them in sports.
She has met weightlifting bright lights such as Pyrros Dimas and Valerios Leonidis. She appeared, with seven other women from various nations, in the January 2015 issue of Cosmopolitan — or, as she puts it cheerily, “Cosmo U.S.A.!” (She meant it wasn’t the foreign editions.) She says, “I am an athlete who is sponsored by Nike from the U.A.E. That’s huge. That is something that I’m very proud of.”
It has been some seven-year path for an erstwhile 19-year-old university student on anti-depressants, a detail Al Haddad volunteers counter-culturally. (“I don’t care. For me, it’s about educating people.”) It began when she took a walk in Safa Park in Dubai. She decided she would have to change herself to elude her misery. She became a “fitness junkie,” as she put it. She quit the anti-depressants with a haste not generally prescribed. In her typically ardent research, she started reading that strength training cuts body fat. Once going, she adored the feeling of improved strength, eventually channelling full-on into weightlifting.
“Weightlifting is a very frustrating sport,” she said. “And I feel I have grown a lot because of that frustration that I dealt with, with the sport. For me, what kept me going and not giving up on the sport, because I learned to become patient. I’m far from patient. I’m an angry person normally. For some reason the sport really calmed me down. I have no idea how. Like one of the best gifts I’ve had, is when I approach the bar with such coldness.”
It matters enough to her that she persisted after six months ago, when her doctor expressed worry that her back would shriek through her “second life,” or post-competitive life. In early May, when the back wouldn’t let her so much as organize her closet — her sister helped out — the doctor ordered six weeks off.
It would be her longest hiatus from exercise since her walk in Safa Park.
This is some way from when she first told her mother of plans so alien that they never would have even glanced across a mother’s mind.
“Never, ever,” Budebs said. “Never, ever, ever, ever. No, this is a surprise in my life. Something unusual. And you know our culture, people see it and it’s very strange. But with her ambition, her will power, she did it.” She joked, “Maybe I am too much patience.” She said, “It was something strange for me, and in my heart, I wanted her to change her mind. But she is the one who let others believe in what she is doing.”
That kind of parental realization has dotted the region.
Just 75 miles down the wild and gleaming highway in Abu Dhabi, an 11-year-old girl in the middle of the last decade saw the film “Ice Princess,” whereupon she hurried out to buy skates, whereupon she accidentally bought hockey skates and headed to Abu Dhabi’s ice rink inside a sports complex. She quickly became a mainstay, until she reached mid-teens, when Zahra Lari’s father, Fadhel, echoed a sentiment held around the region: that sports are not serious business, and that there comes a time to home in, especially on school.
Lari’s mother, Roquiya Cochran, recalls her husband saying to Zahra, “ ‘It’s time you started to back away from it. You’ve done it. You’ve enjoyed it. Okay, there are other things in life, and move on.’ ”
He did take the family to Dubai for a skating event in which Zahra would have competed had she continued, and where she could cheer for her still-skating friends. “And it just honestly, it broke his heart,” Cochran said, “because she was cheering and she was happy for everyone else, but you know, you could see that she felt sad for herself. You could see it. . . . And yeah, it just broke his heart and he said, ‘Okay, I give up. You can continue.’ ”
Zahra, by now 21, the only daughter amid two supportive brothers, tacked on even more respect for a father she clearly adores. “He was like, ‘You know what? Forget about what colleagues say at work,’ ” she said. “ ‘Forget about whoever tells him anything.’ And he was like, ‘I know it’s something that you love. You’re not doing anything wrong. Then why not? Just go and work hard.’ Because my Dad, at work, he’s got people telling him, ‘Why do you allow your daughter doing this?’ But I mean, he just ignores it. He’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter what they say. I’m your father. I want the best more than anyone. And if I knew this was something wrong, I wouldn’t let you do it.’ ”
So, in their fine house in a residential area just outside Abu Dhabi, a 21-year-old university student sets her alarm each day for 4 a.m., pushes the snooze button several times, mulls sleeping in, thinks of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, rises at 4:30 and drives to the ice rink.
Even for parents who never wavered in finding sports healthy, revelations have come. Zaid Al Bitar and Rania Dalloul, the parents of Sameera Al Bitar, the 26-year-old triathlete who swam for Bahrain in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, already staunchly advised Sameera to ignore such troubles as a local newspaper columnist who objected to her competing in a swimsuit. Yet along the way, an even deeper feeling materialized. “What made us also give her the support, was herself, how much obedience [to her training], how much persistence,” Zaid Al Bitar said by telephone from Cairo, where he and Dalloul reside nowadays.
He said, “That was really something to us we could not ignore.”
And, he said, “She inspired us more than we inspired her.”
At the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu Jitsu Championships in April, as men and women competed on adjacent mats, the male Lebanese-Syrian coach and teacher Khalid Walid Merii, 29, spoke of the fresh trickle of Middle Eastern women participating and said, “I think the more the generations keep going, it will keep changing more and more.”
In a further wrinkle hatched this decade, 15 universities now hold intercollegiate competitions for about 550 men and about 450 women, said Peter Dicce, the assistant dean of students and director of athletics at New York University Abu Dhabi. Ninety percent of the women are local, he said. For soccer, they play in shorts at venues at which all the people — players, coaches, referees, assistants, spectators — are women. The women often find a possibility long unseen in the region: that sports can complement, rather than imperil, their academics.
‘I Lift a Nation’
Of course, like other members of this flowering sisterhood, Al Haddad does note the obstacles. They far exceed the slight complications of when a headscarf slips during weightlifting.
She feels disconnected from peers who tend to lack her seriousness. In cultures where just about everyone yearns to get married, she surmises it will take “a very secure man” to marry her, even as she hopes for just such. She feels disconnected from peers who tend to lack such drive. “So as I get closer to 30, I’m my own woman,” she said. “Nobody can tell me what I can and cannot do.” She paused. “I mean, no one ever tells me what I can and cannot do anyway.”
Starting late, in a generation that tended to start late, brought “a lot of challenges” and “a lot of struggles,” Al Haddad said. “The way my body reacted is not the way I wanted it to.” Technique suffered, becoming “a major setback for me, because the older you get in your sport, the harder it is to teach yourself the motor skills. And honestly just to see how I used to lift a few years ago and how I lift now, to me that’s an achievement on its own.”
As always, there’s the issue of what to do about critics, who seldom pop up face-to-face but do tend to lurk behind keyboards.
“It is very easy to be criticized when you are a covered woman and you are doing sports,” she said. “It is not something that is common. It is not something that is looked positively upon for some. So obviously I get a lot of negative comments. Personally I never pay attention to the comments, positive or negative, to be honest, because I know who I am and what I set out to do. Those who support me, I appreciate them, but those who don’t, they don’t even, like, exist, you know?”
If, for others, such critics are within families, that can prove prohibitive. “I know there are women who may love sports but may not want to ever pursue it further because they are afraid of what their family will say,” she said. “Because it is ‘shameful for a woman to do this and that,’ blah-blah-blah.”
With that reality in mind, she said, “Amna is more than a clean-and-jerk, a snatch and a total [points score]. I tend to get a lot of questions, and one of the first questions I get from people is, ‘How much do you lift?’ My answer is, ‘I lift a nation.’ ”
Come late June 2016, the United Arab Emirates team would learn it had qualified for the Olympics because three teams ahead of it had failed doping tests. Based on recent results, the federation chose Aisha Al Balushi, 24, to represent the team in Rio de Janeiro. “I’m just really, really happy I was part of this, and I could say that I actually did it,” Al Haddad said.
Earlier, in May, another woman who ventured from norms a generation ago, when she went away to university in Jordan, sat on the last seat of the left side of a front row of an auditorium at New York University Abu Dhabi.
There, Amira Budebs would hear a daughter she never imagined speak to a 100-strong assembly of students, professors, administrators. She had never seen Amna speak in person. She felt nervous just going, then sat wordlessly in front in her traditional black abaya. Outside, the merciless summer heat was well on its way, but indoors in the air conditioning, listeners heard of a different intensity.
For an hour, Al Haddad showed some of her Nike videos, showed quotations on the screen and spoke encouragements such as: “This is why I’m here today, because I did not try to get ahead of anyone, but ahead of myself.” She told the listeners, “I used to get so angry. And now I’m super-chill.”
When the loquacious speaker finished speaking, her mother’s mind had been on some journey. “I had so many thoughts,” she said, eyes wide, and soon she added, “Today when I am listening; I’m listening not to my daughter. I am listening to my teacher.”
The Female Muslim Athlete
Muslim countries from the Middle East might send an unprecedented number of female competitors to next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the support of other women and a growing number of men, they have widened the cultural possibilities about the role of women in their societies, including standards about when they should marry, how soon they should start a family and what they should wear while competing. This series is about the courage and perseverance of female athletes in one of the last regions on Earth to celebrate them.