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Despite obstacles, women’s wrestling team in Iraq finds success — both on the mat and off

Sabah Arar / AFP / Getty Images

This post was originally published on Women in the World.

An Iraqi women’s wrestling team has proven an unlikely success story in a conservative region that historically has loved the sport — if only when men compete in it. Nehaya Dhaher, a 52-year-old sports teacher and trainer at a athletic club in Diwaniyah, was surprised but excited when the Iraqi Wrestling Federation asked her if she would help create the country’s first women’s squad. She started the squad off with five volunteers from her local club. Today, the team boasts 20-odd members who ranging in age from 15 to 30.

“Recruiting wasn’t a problem,” recalled Dhaher. “On the other hand, it’s been difficult to convince society because our traditions aren’t really headed in this direction.”

The Al-Rafidain — a team name that translates to “the two rivers,” in reference to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that give life to the region and once served as the cradle of civilization — initially faced opposition from locals who felt it was scandalous for women to be involved in sports at all, let alone one as physically involved as wrestling. But over time, Dhaher said, the team’s efforts at outreach paid off and Diwaniyah residents began coming out in numbers to support their women at tournaments.

“Here, the tribes rule the lives of all. I’ve received direct and indirect threats but we’ve managed to win respect,” Dhaher said. “We’ve built bonds of trust with the wrestlers’ families. We look after the girls, picking them up from their home before practice and returning them afterwards. We even follow up on their schooling.”

The team’s success has also contributed to their popularity. Alia Hussein, 26, won a silver medal in the under 75-kg category at the Women Classic International Tournament in Beirut in September.

“We’re sure of what we do, so people can say what they want,” said Hussein’s adoring mother, showing off a home covered in her daughter’s trophies. “We haven’t done anything wrong, so no one has the right to say anything.”

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