x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

UAE girls get the point of noble sports

A group of young women in Sharjah are determined that nothing will stop them when it comes to drawing a sword or shooting a bow and arrow.

Mariam Al Shehhi, 16, is a picture of concentration, even after releasing an arrow at the club.
Mariam Al Shehhi, 16, is a picture of concentration, even after releasing an arrow at the club. "Archery has changed my life," she says. Razan Alzayani / The National

Clad in white, the two opponents face each other from opposite corners of the piste. Each raises her sword in a salute. First to each other, then the coach and finally the audience.

"En garde" cries the coach; the signal for the two fencers to put on their masks, raise their weapons and prepare for the contest to begin.

"Fence". With this command, off go Hind Al Marzouqi, 15 and Ghadeer Al Marri, 16, thrusting their swords at each other in a duel of wits and fighting moves that have been perfected over thousands of years of swordplay.

In another corner of the Sharjah Ladies Club, just outside the duelling arena, the "three Ms". Mariam Al Shehhi and Moza Al Muhairi, both 16, and Meera Al Mazmi, 14, stand in a row in silence, concentrating on the target ahead of them. With powerful shoulder and arm muscles, they each carry a bow almost the size of themselves while aiming their arrows in a show of precision and patience.

In an embodiment of an Islamic tradition, the three live by a Hadith by the Prophet Mohammed, where he called on his followers to "Beware, strength consists in archery. Beware, strength consists in archery. Beware, strength consists in archery".

Mariam says: "I feel like a Muslim warrior whenever I carry my bow and arrows. Archery has changed my life."

The five youngsters are among a small but growing band of Emirati and Arab women taking up traditional male sports with ancient pedigrees, such as fencing, which was once a popular pastime of kings and courtiers.

Archery, meanwhile, besides its presence in almost every culture and time, was reserved for an elite group of warriors in early Muslim armies who played a key role in winning many battles during the spread of Islam.

These young women practise three times a week at the club and compete against other clubs in the hope that they might one day represent their nation in the Olympics.

In just a year since their inception, more than 40 women have joined the "all women" fencing courses at the Sharjah Ladies Club, with recruits signing up each month. There are other fencing and archery courses across the UAE, but often the women must train in mixed gyms or take up private lessons.

"The all-women atmosphere helps build the confidence they need initially before they can compete on a bigger scale with others outside their community, and then in the presence of men," says Reham Hussein, the fencing coach at the Sharjah Ladies Club.

This month also saw the country's first official women's fencing tournament organised by the Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Sports Academy in cooperation with the Fencing Federation. It featured female fencers from across the UAE, including the Sharjah Ladies Club, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein centres in Dubai, the Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak centre in Abu Dhabi and private clubs.

"It is not just a hobby any more. There are some really serious young female athletes we are discovering that I believe will be great champions soon," says Mrs Hussein.

The 36-year-old Egyptian had her own sports career cut short by a traditional father who, after allowing her to fence from the age of nine to 16, decided she had become a woman and shouldn't be competing in places where there were men.

"Fencing is a very important sport in Egypt. We have Olympian winners in it, but sometimes tradition stands in the way of women in sports," she says. Mrs Hussein is married and is now teaching her three young children fencing.

"The younger you start the better," is her advice. Her six-year-old daughter is training, as well as her 11-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter.

While it may be the "sport of nobles" there is a lot of work that goes into fencing. "There are many steps, and you can easily get penalised. But I love that it is active and I have to keep thinking and predicting my opponent's next move," says Hind, who after a recent tournament between clubs, went home with scars across her neck from her opponent's sword.

"My family can't understand the appeal of a sport that leaves you with scars. But I took them as scars of a battle, and it made me more determined to become a better fencer," she says.

For Ghadeer, who joined with her sister Rayyan, 13, they like the "grace" that comes with fencing and both are determined to make it to the Olympic Games one day.

"You learn something new every day with fencing, how there are different types of swords, the different ways of gripping them, of handling them. How to outwit your opponent. Your brain is always working," says Ghadeer. "It is really fun and it is prestigious."

All the fencers agree that there is something special about fencing, and that it remains "princelike".

For Hamda Al Suwaidi and her sister, Mahra, who just joined this month, they want to be the next Zorro.

Inspired by the agility and poise of the dashing fictional character, the two young Emirati girls have taken up fencing in the hopes of becoming just like their swashbuckling hero.

"Fencing is so romantic. So elegant. I love it," says Hamda, 17. Along with 14-year-old Mahra, the pair like to demonstrate for their families back at home the latest moves with the aid of coat hangers.

"Our mother is determined to turn us into champions. She has already listed for us the different tournaments we can compete in, so we will have to train hard," says Mahra.

Unlike fencers, who have been convincing their cousins and relatives to join and try their hand at the sword, the archers have a hard time recruiting new opponents in the five years they have been training.

"We have no one to compete against. It the same handful of archers," says Moza. "We have to travel abroad if we want to meet and train with other archers."

The archers say that many who try it out, give up quickly after their first attempt because the bow is heavy and strains the hands, while the sport need a lot of concentration.

But for Meera, the appeal of archery is that it is an individual sport requiring full concentration. "You are in your own zone. You control everything. The slightest change in your mood and you won't be able to hit the target," she explains.

Regardless of where these young women end up, they all say that sport has given them a new sense of purpose. "This is just the beginning. Any athlete that stays true to the sport, has a chance at winning a medal," says Mrs Hussein.