THE UAE’S FIRST FEMALE OLYMPIANS
This Olympics marked a very monumental year for the UAE, as an Emirati woman competed in the Games for the very first time. At just 17 years of age, Khadija Mohammed is blazing a trail for other women of the Emirates by competing in the first UAE women’s weightlifting team and representing her country at the London Olympics.
One year ago, Khadija took a chance by joining the newly formed women’s weightlifting team in Dubai, which was her first time ever performing lifts like ‘the snatch’ and ‘the clean and jerk.’ “I used to play on the football team, then we once had a meeting where I met the coach and she told me about this weightlifting sport and asked me to join. I tried it, liked it, and I’ve been in it ever since,” says Khadija with a grin.
The team’s coach, Najwan El Zawawi, moved to the UAE four years ago after having been a part of the Egyptian weightlifting team. “[While] I participated in the 2000 Olympics, this is the first women’s team in the Gulf, and there is no other Gulf country that has such a team except for the UAE,” Najwan says. “I received a call from the General Authority of Youth and Sports Welfare asking me to start a team [in the UAE].” Since she took over, Najwan’s recruiting and perseverance to see this opportunity materialize has led the way for more women of the Emirates to participate in future Olympic Games.
From the beginning, Coach Najwan faced a great deal of skepticism and rejection from most people, but she was determined to establish a women’s team. “There was no acceptance for it at all, no one was willing to join. Girls didn’t accept the idea and parents were totally against it. At first, I decided to go to schools, but principals were against it. So it was very hard and challenging, but I never gave up. My Plan B was to go to a ladies’ sports club to meet girls and become friends with them, build a trust-based relationship. I played for two months with the football team; that was my only approach since the girls, their parents and even society didn’t accept this at first. But I made a promise to keep on trying to start a team. Nothing was going to stop me. I told [the girls] about my idea, and I was able to get five girls to start the team, but they didn’t know how to tell their parents. The girls started telling other girls about it until the number of interested ladies increased.”
Khadija was one of the first to join the team and see what it was all about. “At first, [my family] didn’t know. They just knew that I used to play sports, but didn’t really know what kind of sports. I decided to tell them what this sport was exactly, and they were really supportive. They encouraged me to go on with it and travel around for competitions outside of the UAE.” With her family’s approval and blessing, even the community seems to be rallying behind the UAE’s first female Olympic competitor. “Everyone is happy for us now. At school, they are being supportive, and now I feel like I’m known among the crowd. Even when walking down the street, some people will recognize who I am and what I do.”
Twenty-one-year-old Yasmin Yousef met some resistance when she first approached her mother with the idea of joining a weightlifting team. “At first, there was a big ‘no.’ I got into the house and I told mom that I joined this team. She was like, ‘What?’ I had to sit with her for a good while to convince her that this is a good sport and it is OK for girls to participate in it, until she agreed and was OK with it.”
All of the women on the weightlifting team can agree that one thing is for certain: “[Weightlifting] will affect your personality in a better way – it will make you stronger. I became a stronger person, more focused, and I know what I want. And I am also physically stronger,” says team member Onoud Abdullah Faraj. Coach Najwan is happy to see how the sport has affected more than just the amount of weight each woman can lift. “It has made them stronger and more confident. It even affected the way they handle certain situations on the street in a much better way. Plus, this sport doesn’t just mean strength of the body or the size, it is about the inner strength… and from here, you gain strength in your personality.”
What is the pressure like being the first Emirati woman to compete in the Olympics? “Our mission now is to represent the UAE, so [the team] will all be supportive. It is a big responsibility. We have to make our country proud; that’s our mission,” says Khadija.
And how is the coach helping prepare Khadija for the biggest competition of her weightlifting career? “Of course it’s more work. We have to work so hard and try to manage our time for the sake of giving more time for the training than any other thing. This is a critical and serious time where we have to focus and put all our work on this training,” explains Coach Najwan.
With the conclusion of the Olympics, Khadija and the UAE’s female weightlifting team have all contributed to pioneering the way for female athletes across the nation. Khadija can be proud of taking that first step into the weightlifting room and attempting something she had never done before – all while facing adversity and making history. In one year, she has gone from novice to Olympic competitor. Not too shabby for a teenage girl.
“Weightlifting is a very nice sport,” she says. “It might be hard at first, but then it feels great. It’s competitive, but within a friendly environment. This is a sport for everyone, not just for men. If you practice it, you will enjoy every bit of it.”