- Mariam became the first Saudi Arabian female athlete to compete in a jiu-jitsu competition on Friday
- Wins bronze medal in white belt 25kgs
- Leena Al Hakeem, 13, wins a silver medal in the white belt 75kgs for girls
Mariam Akeil, 8, blazes a trail for Saudi Arabian girls at Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Festival
Whatever Mariam Akeil goes on to achieve in life, her appearance last week at the Abu Dhabi Jiu-Jitsu Festival will always come with the footnote of being the first female from Saudi Arabia to compete in a jiu-jitsu competition.
Mariam, 8, won a bronze medal in the white belt 25-kilogram for girls at the Festival, part of the 10th Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship being held at the Mubadala Arena at Zayed Sports City.
Not bad for someone who only took up the sport six months ago.
“I tried hard to win but I just couldn’t because she was stronger and taller,” Mariam said of her opponent Daya Dosanjh, from England, who has been practicing the martial art for two years and was appearing in her third competition.
"I got a bit emotional because it was my first appearance in a big competition."
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Mariam admitted to feeling nervous ahead of her bout but that she was determined to use the experience as a learning curve.
“I started jiu-jitsu recently but I’ll take this as an experience and return stronger,” she added.
Mariam's achievement on Friday was followed by a silver medal for Leena Al Hakeem, 13, in the white belt 75kgs for junior girls. The entry of the two girls in international competition cannot be overstated, especially in a sport largely seen within the conservative kingdom as too violent for females to take part in. It is part of the dramatic social reforms being implemented in Saudi Arabia by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the government seeking to jump-start women's sports.
Loulwa Bakr, Mariam's mother who along with her husband Hussein accompanied their daughter to Abu Dhabi, said an episode of bullying at school led her to seek out a combat sport for Mariam to learn self-defence.
“We consulted a psychiatrist and was recommended to put her in a martial art sport,” Loulwa said. “I tried to get her into a martial arts programme like judo, karate or taekwondo but they were only for boys.
"I was a member of the Arena Women’s Club and did cross-fit. I came to know they had started jiu-jitsu for women and that’s how we got Mariam into jiu-jitsu. The women’s sport in Saudi Arabia is mostly attended by expatriates, but it’s going to change.”
Loulwa is a former investment banker and now has her own financial advisory firm, while her husband Hussein is a lawyer. Loulwa said she wanted to provide her daughter with the sort of sporting opportunities denied to her when she was young.
“Most of the fitness and sports clubs are private organisations but with the reforms that are taking place in the country now there’s hope for the younger generation females to pursue and excel in sports,” Loulwa said.
“I missed all my youth without being involved in any sport which I loved when I was a kid. Let’s see if my daughter would enjoy her time in sport. She loves jiu-jitsu and we’ll see where she can reach in the sport.”
Stefan Zoll, a former non-league footballer from Yorkshire, northern England, is head coach of the Arena Mixed Martial Arts and Fitness Centre in Jeddah where Mariam trains. He is in the UAE capital to oversee his young charges in action, and says he hopes the reforms taking place in Saudi Arabia will see more young girls follow in Mariam and Leena's footsteps and take up the sport.
“At the moment we have around 40 girls in training,” said Zoll, who was on the books of English football clubs Barnsley and Crystal Palace youth teams during his playing days. “The majority are expatriates but we hope the nationals [girls] will join the programme now that we have two already in competition.
“We don’t have many competing because they have just started. We hope we can recreate the success we have had with the boys and men with the girls in the coming years.”