Dina Al Sabah had a dream: becoming the first Arab female bodybuilder to set foot on the Olympics’ stage. Hailing from an affluent Kuwaiti family did not stop her from practicing her favorite sport, breaking all taboos to engage in a sport that is typically “exclusive for men”.
Although Dina failed to get her professional bodybuilding card from Kuwait’s Bodybuilding Federation, she refused to give up. She reached out to the International Federation of Body Building and Fitness and was granted a professional card, and started rising to fame in the international bodybuilding scene.
Due to what they deem as “too revealing” attire, conservative Arab societies reject women’s involvement in bodybuilding. Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to these opinions, Dina continued to work to achieve her dream of winning international contests in the United States of America.
Giving up the Veil or the Championship?
Wearing a veil has never been an obstacle to Egyptian Kholoud Essam, who has played sports since her early childhood. Supported by her family, she practiced Kung Fu and swimming, but her greatest passion is bodybuilding, and that made her the first Arab female bodybuilding trainer.
Her family’s stance later changed, as they tried to stop her from practicing this “ill-reputed” sport. However, she refused to let go of her intimate relationship with her muscles, which were growing every day.
As she turned 28, her family members were concerned about her marriage prospects, believing that men would be scared of her muscles. Having achieved significant success in bodybuilding, Kholoud found those remarks “funny”. In addition, she is training a group of girls, who look up to her and dream of being in her shoes one day, albeit they grow their muscles in the dark these days, as they fear society’s backlash.
“I started building my muscles around two years ago. In the beginning, my family used to encourage me to keep my weight under control, but I faced too many problems when I decided to take it to the professional level. Comments like you have become like a man, where is your femininity? became the norm,” Kholoud Issam tells Raseef22. “As long as I am determined to achieve my dream, no one will stand in my way”, she adds.
Although there is little to no financial let alone moral support to bodybuilding, Kholoud’s determination to succeed made her play in contests, even when she was not part of the official team. In her own words, she is a self-proclaimed ambassador of bodybuilding in Egypt and the Arab world at large.
Kholoud wishes to become an international champion, but she turned down many offers to take part in contests, where she would be forced to take off her veil and wear revealing outfits. She still dreams of establishing her own training academy one day.
I decided to build my muscles to defend myself, as long as the society does not provide any other method
Her muscles certainly come in handy when people offend her, or sexually harass her
When asked if she needs her muscles apart from the training, she affirms that her muscles certainly come in handy when people offend her, namely when they sexually harass her. “I say if you wanna try, just come closer”, says Kholoud.
"The Union of Body and Soul”
When it comes to men, we tend to associate growing muscles with tattoos, but what about women?
“You are unique when you stop being a nobody”, and “only your wounds can heal your pain” are only some of the tattoos on Jordanian Farah Malhas’s skin. Jordanian society rejects her audacity, which she believes is an expected response to female bodybuilders.
However, Farah believes that bodybuilding is like “the union between body and soul”, and while tattoos are part and parcel of her bodybuilding career, they are only an expression of sadness.
“Why can’t I be one of those women who combine their femininity and sports in a strong body?”, wonders the first Jordanian professional bodybuilder in a press interview. She added that “everyone is against me, nobody understands that I want to be an international star in bodybuilding”. According to Farah, it is difficult for female bodybuilders to get the approval of the Jordan Bodybuilding Federation and participate in contests.
A Private Bodyguard
“I chose bodybuilding to prove to everyone that it does not affect your femininity at all”, says Hind Wajih Othman, the first female in Egypt to be granted “a bodyguard” license from the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.
Speaking to Raseef22, Hind says that although bodybuilding is exclusively for men in Arab societies, women should have the right to practice this sport if they wish.
The private bodyguard believes she is paving the way for future generations of women, who may choose this sport and fail to find adequate support. “I wish we had adequate support for this sport in Egypt, but taking part in international contests requires financial resources that players cannot afford on their own. This sport needs sponsors here,” says Hind.
When she announced her wish to join presidential guards, and restore the female presidential guards unit, as was the case in Libya under the regime of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Hind came under attack. Reflecting on her beginnings, she said she had trained next to men in mixed halls, where she heard a lot of negative comments, but she “was steadfast” in her practice.
Harassment and Insecurity
Marwa Fahmi took her eight-year-old daughter to train in bodybuilding with professional experts. Her son was also there and trained with his sister, but Marwa believes the society needs to change attitudes towards female bodybuilders.
“Bodybuilding should not be exclusively for men; in light of what we are witnessing in Arab societies nowadays, every girl must learn martial arts to protect herself”, Marwa tells Raseef22. She says she wishes that her daughter would be a bodybuilding champion one day.
Sexual harassment may also leave a psychological scar that encourages women to seek a self-defense mechanism. When she faced sexual harassment in public transportation, Sarah Yassin felt she was incapable of defending herself. She later decided to start building her muscles, so that she would be always ready to defend herself. “I decided to build my muscles to defend myself, as long as the society does not provide any other method. I don’t care about losing my femininity as people say, all I want is to defend myself”, Sarah tells Raseef22.