BAGHDAD: 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 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,” the 52-year-old told AFP.
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.
But 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 leapt at the chance.
To start off, she found five volunteers at her local sports club to train the Al-Rafidain – “the two rivers” — whose name pays tribute to Iraq’s mighty Tigris and Euphrates.
Today, the team has about 20 members aged from around 15 to 30 who train three times a week in two-hour sessions after school.
On a broad blue mat with a red circle at its centre, the wrestlers tumble with determination under the watchful eye of Dhaher, wearing a grey 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.
But when training ends, the wrestlers file out of the building in long robes, most of them wearing headscarves, seamlessly blending into the city where 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,” said Dhaher.