Also held in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Al Gharbiya, the competition has seen the number of girls participating in the championship triple since 2010, when the first tournament was first held with 60 girls.
Jiu-jitsu increasingly popular with girls at Emirati schools
ABU DHABI // Within five minutes, Reem Al Falahi had her opponent right where she wanted – defeated flat on a mat.
The 15-year-old pumped her fists in the air and smiled triumphantly as she turned her attention to the fervent girls, mums and coaches in the stands cheering her victory.
Reem was one of 180 girls to take part in the Jiu-Jitsu Regional Championship last month at the Fatima bint Mubarak Gym.
Also held in Al Ain and Al Gharbiya, the competition attracted three times as many girls as it did when it launched with 60 girls in 2010.
The high profile and public support that jiu-jitsu enjoys in the UAE, along with an increase in the number of jiu-jitsu training programmes and events in schools, have led to the rise in the number of female students enrolling in the School Jiu-Jitsu Programme, said Deena Baker, school jiu-jitsu programme marketing specialist.
For ninth-grader Reem – who has earned an orange belt, the highest she can achieve for her age level – the competition was the first step towards reaching her ultimate goal.
“My goal is to make UAE proud, to make my country proud, and to prove that us, the Emiratis, are the strongest in jiu-jitsu,” Reem said. “I play some other sports, but I don’t like them – only jiu-jitsu. I like it because, you know, Sheikh Zayed played jiu-jitsu when he was small. Because I want go to a championship and take first place.”
The annual contest brought together athletes aged 10 to 15 from across Adec’s School Jiu-Jitsu Programme, which itself had to expand to accommodate the growing interest in the sport by girls and boys.
“We want to raise awareness among girls and their parents of the importance of this game,” said Adec spokeswoman, Hanan Al Sahlawi. “We want it to become more popular among the girls, that’s why we created two commercials last year and we’re creating a brochure, we’re releasing it, and another corporate video about jiu-jitsu, it will be inserted in the brochure and given to all of the schools, all efforts to raise awareness about the importance of this game.”
The promotional efforts seem to have worked.
In 2008, when the school programme launched, there were 2,995 students in grades 6 and 7 from 14 government schools, including three girls schools, enrolled. Now, more than 28,000 students, including 3,000 girls, take part in the School Jiu-Jitsu Programme. Although the sport is available only to girls in cycle two, there are plans to expand it to cycle three for the 2015-2016 school year.
“The girls love it, you can see how they are here, they’re very excited,” said Ms Baker. “Parents have been coming to visit more events, it’s just growing in popularity.”
During matches, girls wear a hijab and a body suit beneath their kimonos, which they say help to prevent scratches or hair pulling on the mat.
For Reem, the sport is the ultimate equaliser.
“Jiu-jitsu is the only sport that doesn’t distinguish between man and woman, it’s the same thing for both, it’s equal,” said Reem. “It allows girls who are shy, not very strong, to actually become stronger and not as shy because jiu-jitsu gives you that strength.”
The programme allows pupils in participating schools to choose jiu-jitsu as one of their two required weekly physical education classes. An after-school training programme taught by 130 black-belt coaches from Brazil was introduced in the 2012-2013 academic year to further encourage pupils to develop their skills at least twice a week. Girls, as well as boys, can also sign up for training camps held throughout the year.
“We don’t look at jiu-jitsu only as a sport, a martial art,” said Ms Baker. “Instead we focus on jiu-jitsu’s ability to teach lifelong skills, which is basically the essence and identity of the programme. Among many other physical and health benefits, jiu-jitsu teaches students discipline, determination, and various beneficial qualities and skills through training, competitions and other jiu-jitsu-centred activities.”