x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Fujairah's tae kwon do girls show their fighting spirit

The martial art of tae kwon do is proving a hit with growing numbers of young girls in Fujairah, signalling a shift in cultural attitudes. Parents say the sport builds their daughters' confidence, while their instructors look for the next champion in their midst.

Suaad Rashid Mesmari, 9, right, spars with Mahra Nabil Mesmari, 8, left, during a tae kwon do class in Fujairah.
Suaad Rashid Mesmari, 9, right, spars with Mahra Nabil Mesmari, 8, left, during a tae kwon do class in Fujairah.

FUJAIRAH // While most parents dread fighting among their children, in the al Awadi household it is encouraged.

Sara, aged eight and with a head of untamed curls, takes advantage as she launches into a kick against her five-year-old brother, Saud.

Parents, don't panic. These youngsters are regulars at the Fujairah Boxing and Tae Kwon Do Club, where they spar with each other under strict supervision.

The sport is increasingly popular with Emirati girls on the east coast, inspired by the success of a female martial arts star, a more open culture and the stories of their classmates. Perhaps no one was as surprised as Najat al Awadi when her daughter approached her and asked to do tae kwon do lessons.

"I don't know how she knew about tae kwon do but she was asking all the time," Mrs al Awadi said. "Before I was scared. All the information I knew about it was from TV and it was frightening."

Fujairah girls will have their own coach in Ahlam Blanchette, Morocco's one-time world champion, when the club moves to new premises later this year. Much of this drive behind the sport comes under the aegis of Eid Sairood, an army officer who organises free tae kwon do classes five nights a week.

Mr Sairood is a former member of the national team, and his dedication is his way of giving back. Although he speaks English with a North Carolina accent picked up during his three years at Duke University in the United States, parents trust him to coach their daughters because they know that, as an Emirati, he understands and respects their values.

The lessons are helping pupils become more positive. In the five months since Sara started lessons with Mr Sairood she has become more confident in school and at ordering meals in restaurants, has more energy and is more punctual, her mother said.

"The personality of my daughter has become strong," Ms al Awadi said. "It's like a small school. The advice is very good. Before she was so shy."

Ms al Awadi, who still has a few people who tell her tae kwon do is for boys, points to the success of Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed, the daughter of the Ruler of Dubai, to show times have changed. The princess won a gold medal two weeks ago in the 73kg class at the GCC Women's Games in Abu Dhabi.

"I want this personality to come up and when she grows up she will be a champion," Mr Sairood said. "I tell them, 'The medal belongs in your name. If you want it you can take it. If you don't want it, give it to somebody else.'"

The instructor sat down with his friends from the national team in 2004 and they agreed to help develop the sport across the country, even in the most remote areas.

"I always had a dream to have a team from Fujairah to represent Fujairah and then represent the UAE in future," Mr Sairood said. "My dream is to see a girl or boy as a champion of the world. Why not? Why not us?"

The "us" includes women and represents a cultural shift. Conservative Fujairah may not have been ready for a women's club 10 years ago, but Mr Sairood and the Moroccan coach, Hesham Blanchette, Ahlam's husband, teach 57 children including 15 girls. Eight of the girls are Emirati.

The club has met with such success that boys and girls will knock on his door at home and call him out to coach on the days they don't have training.

"I know my people will support me when I explain to them," Mr Sairood said. "It's not just about kicking people and fighting. When you teach people, you teach them how to love each other."

At a school demonstration in Jazirat al Hamra, 27 girls broke blocks of wood in half with kicks yesterday to earn their yellow belts, to cheers from their classmates and a few potential future teammates. Mr Sairood's dream may not be far off.

The situation on the ground is different at the RAK Tae kwon do Club, where just 15 of 120 students are girls, and none are over the age of 12.

While Yousef and Yacoob al Shirawi, aged seven and 10, practice, their female cousin watches from the empty chairs at the sidelines with the nannies and drivers.

Bedoor al Mulla, 29, takes her daughters Fatema and Rowda, aged three and four, to tae kwon do lessons three days a week.

"Our minds are open," Ms al Mulla said. "We are more educated now. There is no problem with this."

When asked if her daughters will continue after she reaches the age of 12, the answer is an immediate "no".

"In our religion maybe it's not allowed, but we will see at that time," Ms al Mulla said.