At the London Olympic Games this July, 17-year old Khadija Mohammed will make history as she bears the weight of the dreams of women from all around the world on her very capable shoulders. And I mean this literally: Khadija will be the first female weightlifter from the Persian Gulf to participate in the Olympics, competing in the 75-kilogram category. Not only that, she is actually the first female from the whole of the United Arab Emirates to compete.
Khadija may not be a favorite to take home a medal for her country – she will be competing against seasoned vets such as Nadezda Evstyukhina of Russia, Svetlana Podobedova of Kazakhstan and Lidia Valentin of Spain – but that is of little concern; it would just be the icing on the cake. The simple fact that Khadija will have the opportunity to compete is a huge leap forward, and with any hope, will contribute in legitimizing a sport that in the U.A.E. is stigmatized as “unnatural” for women.
When Khadija’s coach Najwan El Zawawi set up the weightlifting program a short 4 years ago she was only able to recruit a small number of girls – as many countries of the U.A.E. are still very conservative – and many Emirati’s confuse weightlifting with body building and believe that allowing gurls to participate could result in serious injuries and a masculine physique, threatening potential marriage prospects. Changing perceptions that are so firmly rooted in tradition can be an exceptionally difficult task, but the perseverance of Khadija, her coach, and teammates has clearly paid off as the clubs number of participants has doubled and their success has inspired Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar to look into building their own women’s teams.
It’s fair to say that the U.A.E. is (in general) more conservative than North America, but the stigma surrounding weightlifting and women’s position in the sport is not unique to Khadija and her teammates. Even in North America there exists a perception among some that Olympic lifting is a male sport, and the women who compete are often undervalued. Where for Emirati women, the primary fear is in regards to marriage potential, I find that North American women fear what weightlifting can do to the physique. Our society praises women for achieving a slender body and weightlifting is believed to stand in opposition of this ideal.
One of my friends, who works as a personal trainer, suggested that I incorporate a weight training routine into my work-out regimen. And my primary concern: Looking more buff than my boyfriend. As illogical as my reasoning was at the time, just imagine how that fear would have been amplified if she had told to try Olympic lifting! Over the past few years I have met some amazing women who are part of a weightlifting club and have come to realize just how absurdly unfounded my fears were. Women who practice the sport of Olympic lifting are not butch-steroid-loving’ machines. They are inspirational, strong, beautiful, confident women. And it doesn’t hurt that they can out-lift half the guys at the gym. Talk about empowerment!
Khadija will also be making new ground as the first women weightlifter to wear a hijab and the newly approved one-pieces uniform at the Olympics. The International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) deserves mad praise for the steps that they have taken to make the sport more accessible to women of different cultures. Last year the Federation changed its policies allowing athletes to compete in a one-piece uniform that covers the full body (hijabs were always allowed). They hope that this change will encourage more women from Middle Eastern countries to compete. According to IWF President Tamas Ajan, making slight changes, as the IWF has done, promotes the ideals of inclusion and openness. If a slight uniform change can open weightlifting up to so many other women, just imagine the possibilities that exist for countless other sports, making the Olympics a true celebration of athletic achievement.