Iraqi women forge new pathways in sport

Fighting for equality: Meet Iraq's rising sportswomen pushing back against exclusion and convention
7 min read
17 April, 2021
Nazli Tarzi interviews the next generation of female Iraqi sports stars, their arduous journeys towards recognition, and the future of sport for women in Iraq.
Women in training at the Asf Family Academy [Instagram @asf__girl]
Iraqi women's retreat from public space has long concealed the fact that females are toiling away to carve out their place in sport  in Yoga, martial arts, and even para athletics.

The choking restraints of daily life in a country governed by men has held women back, but as of recently, women are flipping the script.

Yoga instructor, Nabaa Ismael, a modern languages graduate from Baghdad University, paved an alternative career path, in pursuit of becoming a Yogi – one of Iraq's first.

She trained in Indonesia and later in India, and upon returning to Iraq as a qualified instructor, Ismael founded Yoga in Baghdad, her own private studio, based at the Wissam al-Majd Social Club.

"There's been far less male interest," she told The New Arab, "but till now I've trained a total of 45 female students."

Ismael revealed that she is currently curating online classes, catered for women unable to attend physical training.

Instagram Post
Despite the growing interest, Ismael explained that fitness consciousness in Iraq across the gender-spectrum is not widespread, adding that "societal attitudes play their part."

The conundrum, she added, "is compounded by a shortage of female coaches and the prevalent view that women in sport runs counter to Iraq's social fabric."

Tribal and cultural customs provide a running commentary for Iraqi women, told regularly; "stay at home," "have a baby, have another," "get married," "be good to your husband," and "find a man before it's too late." These attitudes reinforce the view of women as homemakers but never athletes.

Baghdad's first youth Karate academy, The Asf Family, founded in 2014 by former military trainer, turned-sensei, Mohammed Asf, chips away at the separating gender barrier.

The academy's all-female coaching team runs female-only self-defence classes, while keeping open the option of mixed training.

The academy enrolls children as young as three, exposing them to activities that elevate confidence, strengthen fortitude, speed and reflexes.
Tribal and cultural customs provide a running commentary for Iraqi women, told regularly; 'stay at home,' 'get married,' 'have a baby, have another'... These attitudes reinforce the view of women as homemakers but never athletes
"Our philosophy is guided by the noble pursuit of martial arts," Asf told The New Arab. But more important, is the way the academy levels the cultural playing field, nurturing the passions held not only by young boys but equally, those held by young girls.

Instagram Post
Twenty year-old Jannat Thaer who discovered the academy through social media, described her experience as life changing.

"I'd always been interested in sports but I wanted to try something different; something that suited my personality and would teach me to defend myself… two birds one stone," she told The New Arab from Baghdad.

"The biggest change I've seen in myself is that I've grown more confident, patient and self-disciplined," underscoring the mental health and social benefits of the sports.

"It's not just me. The academy has helped many children to develop social skills that they previously lacked, helping us to overcome their inhibitions."

Iraq's four-time para champion in archery, Rana Allawi, spoke in anguish about diminishing support for disabled female athletes in post-occupation Iraq, and the discrimination she encounters daily on the streets of Baghdad.

"Look at that… a handicapped woman… what is she wearing, people would say in shock and disgust whenever they saw me navigating the streets in my wheelchair, dressed in my tracksuit."

She laughed off these experiences, repeating three times over, her self-coined adage; "Al-Eaqa Taqa," translating into, "disability is strength."

"Society views us as dead weight, and our pursuit of education as pointless," the 41-year-old rued. "Family members and neighbours tried to discourage my mother from sending me to school. 'No', she told them, 'I'll send her'."

Her defiance taught Allawi a life-long lesson, refusing to tamper down her ambitions to please society.

Allawi's sports journey began in 2003, the year of the Anglo-American invasion, and the lasting trauma of these events on the Iraqi psyche.

"Iraq is a textbook definition of a disabled nation. It's everywhere. It's not just physical, but psychological too. People are never sure if they'll return home from the market, missing an eye or a limb."
Iraq is a textbook definition of a disabled nation. It's everywhere. It's not just physical, but psychological too. People are never sure if they'll return home from the market, missing an eye or a limb
These challenges, and the spectre of fear, she said, have fuelled her motivation to persist, participating over the years in training workshops in Syria, Iran.

Her proudest feat is becoming Iraq's first female para-archer champion in 2014. Even these accolades have not protected Allawi against institutional discrimination in the Iraqi sporting industry.

"I say this with regret but corruption plagues Iraq's sporting clubs,'' she said, singling out the National Paralympic Committee for their allegedly discriminatory practices.

Allawi accused the body of refusing her permanent membership in spite of her qualifications.

"'We can't afford to take you on,' they would say… 'our budget is limited'. But the truth is that athletes are inducted on the basis of favouritism, and not merit," she said, describing a system commonly known as Wasta.

"I'm fighting this battle alone, not just for myself but for other female athletes with no one to lean on."

Moscow-born, British-raised, Emirati-based, Iraqi jiu-jitsu world champion, Ishtar Azzawi, is another woman defying societal expectations.

The martial art was never part of Azzawi's original career plan. Everything changed after Azzawi after having survived domestic violence almost a decade ago, which left her battling against severe PTSD. Her decision grew instinctively.

"I felt trapped in my own body and I needed to know how to protect myself" she told The New Arab, "so I left London for Abu-Dhabi."

Azzawi's choice was met with mixed reactions. She described herself as the recipient of generous support from the community, but noted that as a woman this was not granted, but something she had to earn.

"In the beginning I was ridiculed. Iraqis couldn't quite understand my decision or why I was training with males. Other people thought I was having a nervous breakdown, taking on a new sport in my thirties, and some said I should focus on marriage and find a husband," the 36-year-old said.

Finding a place to train proved challenging for Azzawi in a country whose sports facilities cater largely for men.

"Some of the facilities I trained at told me not to come back because I was a woman." Others, she explained, provided training below the standard she required. "If you want to become a champion, you need to train like one."

After years of success, and countless medallions to show for it, Azzawi has been shifting her sights to coaching.

"It's great to be the first woman from Iraq to win the world jiu-jitsu championship, but I want others to join me, to show the world what Iraqi women are made of.

"I saw for myself how women kept the community strong during the Iraqi (2019) Revolution," Azzawi said, as she rewound her memory back to scenes of women rallying on the streets and volunteering on the frontlines.

Months later, Azzawi founded the online sports platform, Iqpro-X, a forum that celebrates the accomplishments of Iraqi athletes, and scouts for new female talent.
I still believe that women worldwide have to work twice as hard to justify their place, whether on exercise mats, or in their respective societies
As the only-female of the Iraqi National Team, known also as the Lions of Babylon, Azzawi has been urging the sports federation to induct other female competitors.

"I want them to represent Iraq," Azzawi said, a country where the institution of sport has proven difficult for women to gain entrance into.

"I still believe that women worldwide have to work twice as hard to justify their place, whether on exercise mats, or in their respective societies. I never thought twice," Azzawi said, citing the liberal environment she was afforded by her mother, an Iraqi actress, and her father, an Iraqi filmmaker, growing up.

Ten years after her journey began, Azzawi's mission has expanded and the sense of national pride she has stirred amongst Iraqis has in turn inspired her mission to track down the next generation of female champions.

The step, however small, is a mighty leap for a country reeling from a barrage of wars and unresolved security threats.

Iraqi women are defying the odds, fighting to be heard and seen, and their efforts to secure their place at the national sports table, should also remind us of the daily hardships they continually face.

Nazli Tarzi is a freelance British-Iraqi journalist specialising in Middle East politics, with a particular interest in Iraqi affairs.

Follow her here: @NazliTarzi