x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Vibrant, confident women emerge from taekwondo

Those who participate here in the UAE extol the virtues of the sport, which include good health.

Participants in the Women’s Taekwondo Championship, from the UAE, Oman and Bahrain, noted that the sport is empowering. Mike Young / The National
Participants in the Women’s Taekwondo Championship, from the UAE, Oman and Bahrain, noted that the sport is empowering. Mike Young / The National

A sporting event held last Friday in Abu Dhabi doubled as a bustling picture of robust health. 

It featured women who noted improved self-confidence, women who reported improved wellness, women who felt less afraid when walking in the dark and women who felt rather pioneering.

It even included a coach who said he had trained women for whom tae-kwondo had chased away illnesses and harmful conditions. And if the car breaks down, he said: "They can change the tyre."

"It is good for our country and culture," said Noura Abdulla al Ansari, the Women Sports Section Head of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. 

Into the Hall of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak stepped competitors from three countries (the UAE, Oman and Bahrain) and four weight divisions. Into the hall stepped about 100 of their family members and other spectators, and into the hall walked one Basma Essa, one of the six daughters of Ahmed Essa, the captain of the UAE national football team in the 1970s. Asked if she loves her newfound sport, Basma said, "I adore it," holding on to the "r" in the verb as she spoke.

At 26, she picked up taekwondo just shy of three years ago. She had started in kickboxing at a centre in her native Dubai but that had closed. A taekwondo instructor in Dubai, Abdul Jalil Abdul Razak, had persuaded her to give the ancient Korean martial art a try. She had thought it was not her thing. 

He had said: "Try one week." On her second attempt at training, she suffered a broken arm. "I was trying to block the kick," she explained, "and I had my arms open."

Yet instead of interpreting the broken arm as a signal of doom, she envisioned it as a challenge. "I thought I wasn't at a par with the other players," she said, soon adding, "Something that keeps me going for sure is I'm never satisfied with where I am. There's always something, you see … Even if you speed up your technique, even if you clean up your technique, there's always people who are better."

At the University of Miami in Florida, she had focused on her studies and her part-time job so intently that she lacked time for athletic pursuits even in a surrounding culture teeming with athletes both male and female. 

Now she finds herself zipping around the gym vibrantly, an ambassador competing and talking to other competitors, while the coach, Abdul Razak, tirelessly went around encouraging and coaching the women from the Dubai club. Now she finds that in time away from her job as a brand manager at ENOC, she aims for competitions both nearby and afar, training not only with Abdul Razak but with a Korean coach in Dubai plus an American coach in Egypt.

Now she finds herself transformed. 

"Other than defending yourself when you're a lady," she said, "it feels so good when somebody tells you, 'I'm going to try to beat you up,' and you say, 'Are you really going to try to do that'?" Further propulsion comes from her still-athletic father. 

"Oh, my Mom freaks out about it," she said. "You know, a 26-year-old woman in the UAE. My father, he's a go-getter so he pushes me. Again, it has been very rewarding, not only in terms of medals but personality-wise, your development. It clears your mind. It affects a lot of aspects of your life. You become more punctual. You become more organised with your time."

"Sport is one of the most important activities a person can have in life," Ahmed Essa said by telephone from Dubai through an interpreter. He believes the importance rivals that of food. He supports his daughter's participation because, he said: "It contributes to a stronger person, and to making a person more challenged to improve, to become more independent, more self-reliant. You persevere more. You sacrifice."

Exuding energy, Essa feels as if part of a vanguard in the UAE. "We're still at a very, very initial stage," she said. "Again, not to depress ourselves, but again, you're talking about a culture that is not sports-oriented. Sports generally in the UAE is a very new thing … I think we've got a long way to go but I think there are a bunch of us who want to make it and try to push through the status quo and what is right and what is wrong, and trying to set a standard."

Into the hall stepped Samah Osman Al-Awad, 25, and Zainab Osman Al-Awad, 23, sisters from Oman. They took up taekwondo only 11 months ago under the training of Mohamed Ahmed bin Nasser Al-Harthy, who has played and taught the sport in three countries for 38 of his 52 years. Repeatedly they express their gratefulness to him, and for a poignant reason. 

In October of last year they lost their father, and they credit the sport with helping them to cope. Zainab described it as if an elixir when feeling "angry and very sad".

"It helps to release everything, especially when you are feeling bad," she said. "You can shout. You can scream. You can use all your energy. 

"It makes me feel good. It's about the challenge. Each competition you play, you find more about yourself." Said Samah: "You trust yourself. You are not scared when you walk in the dark." 

They said that some neighbours and friends were startled to learn that they participate in a martial art : "Oh, you don't look like you play taekwondo. Oh my God!" The sport's popularity has blossomed among young women in the sisters' area, and it has had stirring effects health-wise.

"We were very, very fat," said Zainab. 

"Really?" 

"Really. When we started with Mr Mohamed, he killed us training … Before I play taekwondo I'm getting tired very easily and very quick. Now I can work more. I can do anything," and she notices she has stopped getting sick. 

"It's important," said Al-Harthy, their coach. "It's the self-defence. It's good for the health. I have had some students, they are diabetic and since they started to play, they have reduced and they are not taking injections."

"We want to thank them for having us in the competition," Samah said of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. 

Into the hall stepped Raya Kaabi, 24, and Muheera Kaabi, 23, sisters from an Al Ain family of seven sisters and five brothers. They are beginners, they said, just two months in, but already they are hooked, and they mentioned that another of their sisters and two of their brothers aim to join, all with the approval of their parents. Muheera said that participating had changed her diet, the better to maintain her energy level.

Raya found it "very difficult" but said: "It helps for the mind, not just the body." "Actually," Muheera said, "I'm happy because it's just the beginning and I get the good level." Into the hall stepped a few expatriates, of course, including Ludmila Yamalova, an American who works as an attorney in Dubai and trains with the Dubai club. "I'm actually quite impressed by how competitive they are," she said of her Emirati teammates. "I love their team spirit. They really care."

Having emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the US state of Oregon at age 17, she started taekwondo as an adult and has found it "transformative." She said she did not expect to find so many Emirati women at the Dubai training centre, especially with men training in the same facility. "It's impressive to see how we all get along," she said. "And the old cultural stereotypes just vanish." 

And in stepped Al-Harthy, who has entered many a gymnasium in his coaching days that cover 22 of his 38 years in the sport. He has coached taekwondo in Bahrain, in the Congo and in his native Oman.

When he speaks, he reports a phenomenon you often hear from male coaches who have coached both genders around the world. "Yes, I've seen that women are better than men," he said, "because anything you teach women, directly they understand." 

A woman might glean some complex method in a few weeks, he said, where a hard-headed man will require six months. "They are serious in training," he said of the women. "They don't make absence in training like men. And you don't get any complaint that they're fighting outside in their day-to-day lives. That's why I like training women."

As Basma Essa put it, "Rule number one of martial arts is you never apply your technique outside. If anybody comes and troubles you, you just walk away because you have the capacity to hurt someone." Standing on the edge of the gym, Al-Harthy saw fit to look beyond the hall and down the generations. "Once a woman is a sportswoman," he said, "she will make sure that her kids at home, that they will be healthy."

That is when he mentioned that she also might change a tyre. As the matches continued through the afternoon and medal presentations took place on an Olympic-style, three-level stand al Ansari, the Women Sports Section Head, noticed something unanticipated. 

While giving thanks to Sheikha Fatima and pointing out that taekwondo is a sport that can fit into the culture because the athletes perform it covered in clothing, she said: "You can see all the parents here. Before, I didn't expect that these parents would come with them. I feel very happy for this. They say, 'We come to support our family members'."

That, and the plain sight of robust health.

 cculpepper@thenational.ae