When Sharjah Ladies Club established the Sharjah Women’s Sports Department in 2008, it was a massive stepping stone for giving rise to a generation of Emirati women who would become leaders in the world of sport.
Eleven years later, the organisation has stayed true to its word as not only has it empowered young athletes in their sporting endeavours and allowed them to practice whatever sport they like in a fully private setting, but it has also created an integrated system to promote women’s sport in the region, particularly in the Emirate of Sharjah.
Sharjah Women’s Sport (SWS) became an independent entity chaired by Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi following a 2016 Emiri decree, and has since then gone on to form competitive sports teams that participate in tournaments at local, regional and international levels.
As part of their efforts to promote women’s sports, SWS has also organised various events to provide a platform for athletes to showcase their skills and includes a wide array of sports. This includes the Sharjah Women’s Sports Cup, which was launched in 2014, and a biannual event called the Arab Women Sports Tournament which is set to return for its fifth edition sometime during the first quarter of 2020, after a very successful 2018 edition.
HE Nada Askar Al Naqbi, director general of Sharjah Women’s Sports, said: “With the aim to identify and nurture local talent, we organise a series of regional and international tournaments to enrich their experience.
“Playing with international teams enhances their exposure and level of confidence as they represent the UAE in such tournaments. Such initiatives go a long way in not just elevating the stature of women in sports locally but also provides them with a professional platform to showcase their skills regionally and globally.”
Renowned Emirati equestrian rider, Nadia Taryam, sang the praises of SWS and insists the organisation provides a solid cornerstone for female athletes to shape their sporting careers.
Taryam is currently preparing to participate in the International Show Jumping Competition in Rabat, Morocco, where she is targeting a chance to qualify for the
2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, and attributes her success as an athlete to SWS which she claims has made her the athlete she is today.
“SWS goes above and beyond to support female athletes. From giving them the tools needed to tap into their truest potential to supporting them throughout the process of training, preparation and competition,” added Taryam.
“Sharjah Women’s Sports acts as the anchor female athletes need to shape their sporting careers.”
The star showjumper started the sport when she was just 10-yearsold and feels that the society ihas very much stuck to traditional ideas about gender roles and what girls could and could not do, and she says SWS contributed tremendously in breaking those taboos.
“One of the biggest challenges is to change people’s mindsets around their expectations from a girl, things like it’s not right for a girl to compete in male dominated sports, and win,” said Taryam.
“However, since the formation of SWS, a lot has changed for the better for us.”
Many people go that extra mile, but one Emirati always goes a step further than the rest.
Ahmed Al Katheeri became the first person to fly the flag for the UAE earlier this month at the Marathon Des Sables, an historic ultra-marathon staged in the Sahara Desert – unsurprisingly billed as the toughest foot race in the world.
It was by no means Al Katheeri’s first endurance race – he had recently completed the five-day, 270km Al Marmoom Ultra Marathon in Dubai – but he enlisted the help of endurance sports specialists I Love Supersport Dubai to help him reach his goal.
Some 10 weeks later, Al Katheeri was all smiles as he crossed the finish line for his country, after an epic six-day adventure that pushed his body to its limits.
“The conditions were extreme,” admitted the 42-year-old. “It was over 30 degrees in the day time, and at night around 4 or 5, and I had to carry everything with me.
“I was very proud to represent my country and my people, especially without any support from clubs or big companies to find sponsorship.”
As one can imagine, it took meticulous preparation and Al Katheeri honed his nutrition, race strategy, heart rate zones, strength and conditioning, plus technical skills with help from ILSS.
The goal was to finish in very good condition, rather than crawl over the line – and it was mission accomplished.
“Not a huge period of time to do proper work needed for a race like MdS but it looked reasonable keeping in mind Ahmed’s experience – he did a few ultra runs in 2018 including a phenomenal finish at the multi stage one in Dubai,” said Rinat Mustafin, managing partner of ILSS Dubai.
“Ten weeks is not a big period to change something drastically however we made a plan to get best out of it.
“We used the 21k trail race at Mt Sana for a race simulation when Ahmed tested all his gears, clothes, shoes, nutrition, did some tempo work.
“It all seems to have worked well and we are proud of Ahmed’s performance at MdS – he did really solid and great work out there, representing UAE flag for the first time ever in the history.”
Not that Al Katheeri is stopping there.
He plans to run the 100km Race to the Stones in the UK in July, while a desert run in Texas is also in his sights.
The big aim, however, is to become only the ninth person to race in five 250km races in a calendar year on different continents in 2020, including a staggering sub-zero effort in Antarctica.
“I’ll try to make contact with a big supermarket with a big fridge, and put my treadmill there so I can try to practice at cold temperatures,” said Al Katheeri, who resides in Abu Dhabi. “I don’t have enough money to go to Siberia for training!”
But it is desert running that is in his blood and Al Katheeri puts down his love of such extreme competition down to his upbringing in Al Ain.
“I didn’t live far away from the desert – 500m away from the dunes,” he recalled. “When I trained in the desert, I figured out why I love this sport – it takes me back to where I spent my childhood, when we as kids in the afternoon ran on the dunes or played football, and sometimes when it rained and the sand was firm, we took bicycles.
“You do it all from yourself – your own patience, your own love, giving every emotion from your body.”
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The lines between genders have been blurring rapidly and the world of sports is a testament to that as women involvement continues to grow exponentially over the last couple of years.
With both FIFA and FIBA overturning their ban on head gears, many sports have eased up restrictions to further pave way for more females participation, regardless of their culture and faith.
Despite the rising acceptance of female athletes, there is a case of taking one step forward and two steps back as cultural barriers and blatant sexual objectification continue to stigmatise women and hinder their involvement in certain sports, particularly contact or combat sports like mixed martial arts (MMA).
Even though MMA has produced some notable female fighters, the media is often guilty of sexualising them or using provocative content to increase viewership that downplays the achievements and talents of these athletes.
A 2013 headline in FOX Sports about Ronda Rousey epitomized the problem surrounding the portrayal of women in MMA and further underlined the implication that female fighters are admired for more than just their athleticism.
The Middle Eastern perception of martial arts is still heavily rooted in traditional views of masculinity, so women who participate in the sport are thought to be at risk of compromising their femininity.
Egyptian author, digital marketer, and certified personal trainer Lara Fawzy started dabbling in Muay Thai two years ago and embraced the sport for bringing about a positive change in her overall health and well-being.
Considering the numerous benefits of the sport, Fawzy decided to become an advocate for females who wish to take part in the sport and break the stereotypes that are associated with it.
“There are a lot of perceptions about Muay Thai that it is some sort of an aggressive or angry sport, and of course a lot of people tend to think that it is only appropriate for men and women who practice it are not feminine. It’s just a complete lack of knowledge about the sport and its benefits,” she said.
When asked how had Muay Thai changed her as a woman, Lara told Sport360 that practicing the martial art had made her more confident and fit, but as an MMA fan was not very pleased with the way the women were depicted.
“I disagree that women in martial arts should be sexualised. Martial arts sports are empowering, and as a marketer I believe this may be done to appeal to the opposite sex, however, this is not something women need or would like to see. Training any form of martial arts sports is a great way to keep fit, to be strong, to increase discipline and to learn self-defence. There are many benefits, which I think should be emphasised,” she explained.
Fawzy’s Muay Thai/kickboxing coach, Jason Woodham, feels like the stigma is more of a regional issue rather than a global one and has noticed a significant rise in the number of girls joining his classes.
“It does depend on the region, compared to Europe the Middle East still has the stigma. For example, in Saudi Arabia women have just been granted the right to drive, and so maybe there is a bit of stigma if they do a combat sport,” he said.
“Every year there is a 5-10 per cent increase in the number of girls joining my class. I believe that the increase is because of the UFC has created stars. There’s Valentina Shevchenko, Rose Namajunas ‘Thug Rose’, who’s just won the strawweight title, Joanna Jedrzejczyk from Poland, Cris Cyborg, Ronda Rousey – the main ones, so it’s massive now!”
Both Fawzy and Woodham are optimistic that a change in attitude towards combat sport is in the pipeline, but it is vital to first acknowledge and have a conversation about it to pave the way for change.
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