Women wrestlers take on rivals and tradition in south Iraq

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Iraqi female wrestlers practise at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Iraqi female wrestlers practise at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Iraqi female wrestlers practise at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Iraqi women's wrestling team trainer Nadia Saeb talks to players during a practise session at a gym in Diwaniyahh, around 160 kilometres (100 miles) south of the capital Baghdad, on October 7, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 30 October 2018
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Women wrestlers take on rivals and tradition in south Iraq

  • Today, the team has about 20 members aged from around 15 to 30 who train three times a week in two-hour sessions after school

DIWANIYAH, Iraq: Sports teacher Nehaya Dhaher was living a quiet life looking after her elderly mother in Iraq’s tribal south when she was asked to set up the country’s first women’s wrestling squad.
Taking on a sport largely reserved for men in a region with strict traditions was quite a challenge but one that both Dhaher and young female sports fans embraced.
“Recruiting wasn’t a problem,” said Dhaher, a tight blue hijab framing her round face.
“On the other hand, it’s been difficult to convince society because our traditions aren’t really headed in this direction,” the 52-year-old told AFP.
Dhaher was working as a school sports teacher and trainer at a sports club but never imagined that one day she would be coaching a group of young female wrestlers in her conservative city of Diwaniyah.
But when the Iraqi Wrestling Federation approached her two years ago with the opportunity to lead the team due to her proven track record with women athletes, she leapt at the chance.
To start off, she found five volunteers at her local sports club to train the Al-Rafidain — “the two rivers” — whose name pays tribute to Iraq’s mighty Tigris and Euphrates.

Today, the team has about 20 members aged from around 15 to 30 who train three times a week in two-hour sessions after school.
On a broad blue mat with a red circle at its center, the wrestlers tumble with determination under the watchful eye of Dhaher, wearing a grey tracksuit.
The gym’s windows are thrown wide open to ease the stifling heat.
Dressed in an assortment of shorts, tights and T-shirts, the young women alternate between stretches and sparring drills.
But when training ends, the wrestlers file out of the building in long robes, most of them wearing headscarves, seamlessly blending into the city where most women are cloaked in black.
“Here, the tribes rule the lives of all. I’ve received direct and indirect threats but we’ve managed to win respect,” said Dhaher.
To do so, they had to put in more effort than the average coach, according to Dhaher’s assistant, Nadia Saeb.
“We’ve built bonds of trust with the wrestlers’ families,” she told AFP.
“We look after the girls, picking them up from their home before practice and returning them afterwards,” she said.
“We even follow up on their schooling,” added the 47-year-old proudly.
The approach has paid off.
At first unsure what to make of the sport’s new female competitors, today people in Diwaniyah come out to support the team during competitions, according to Dhaher.
Al-Rafidain’s success has pushed others elsewhere in Iraq to try the same, with women’s teams popping up in the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, north of the capital, and in Basra in the country’s far south.

As the sport gained popularity across the country, “little by little, people finally accepted us,” said Alia Hussein, the team’s star who sports a stylish short haircut.
In September, she won a silver medal at the Women Classic International Tournament in Beirut in the under 75 kilo category.
Alongside her budding wrestling career, the 26-year-old hopes to finish her high school diploma after having put her studies on hold to help her family.
After graduating, she hopes to study physical education at university.
Her mother, who has adorned their modest family home with Alia’s trophies alongside paintings showing revered Shiite imams and figures, has always been supportive.
“We’re sure of what we do, so people can say what they want — we don’t care, we haven’t done anything wrong, so no one has the right to say anything,” she said.
Wrestling federation chief Ahmad Shamseddine has been supportive of Iraq’s women wrestlers since day one.
When Al-Rafidain first got started in 2016, the federation was only able to give it “a very small budget,” with about $40 (35 euros) a month allocated to each member, he said.
But in 2019, he added, “they will have more because the team has had good results.”


Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

Updated 23 May 2019
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Children’s author Judith Kerr, who wrote ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’, dies

  • Kerr's family fled Germany as the Nazi's rose to power
  • She based the characters on animals she had seen in real life

LONDON: British writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, whose death at 95 was announced on Thursday, captivated young readers around the world with her tales of a fluffy tiger coming to tea, a trouble-prone cat and her own family's flight from Nazi Germany.
With curly hair and a mischievous smile, the petite Kerr worked well into her 90s, saying she even picked up the pace in old age, drawing inspiration from events in her own life to become one of Britain's best-loved children's authors.
Kerr was born in Berlin on June 14, 1923, fleeing Germany 10 years later after a policeman tipped off her father Alfred Kerr, a prominent Jewish writer, that the family was in danger from the rising Nazi power.
"My father was ill in bed with flu and this man rang up and said: 'They are trying to take away your passport, you must get out immediately'," she recalled in an interview with AFP in June 2018.
He took the first train to Switzerland and his wife and two children soon joined him. A day after their escape, the Nazis took power.
The family moved on to Paris before settling in London in 1936.
This story is loosely recounted from a child's perspective in Kerr's semi-autobiographical novel "When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit" (1971) in which the fleeing girl can only take one toy and so leaves behind a favourite rabbit.
Kerr, who started drawing at a young age, credited the success of the book with being "published at a time when the Germans hadn't really managed to talk to their children about the past".
But she is better known for "The Tiger Who Came to Tea", released in 1968 to become a global classic of children's literature, with at least five million copies sold and published in more than 30 languages.
Kerr's first picture book, it tells of a girl and her mother interrupted at teatime by a huge, fluffy tiger who eats everything in sight before leaving again.
She was able to write up the story -- a bedtime favourite of her young daughter -- while her husband was at work and their two children at school.
The fictional family mirrors her own at the time, the illustrations featuring the yellow and white kitchen cupboards of their London home.
Kerr used tigers at a London zoo as models for her feline creation.
Next was "Mog the Forgetful Cat" (1970), the first in what became a 17-book series about the antics of a mischievous, egg-loving moggy inspired by her own pet.
"Goodbye Mog" (2002) was meant to be the last offering -- broaching the subject of death with the much-loved cat departing for heaven. But supermarket chain Sainsbury's persuaded Kerr to produce one more in 2015: "Mog's Christmas Calamity".
Proceeds of the last book were for Save the Children's work on child literacy, and a TV advert was the first to feature Mog in animation with Kerr herself also making a cameo appearance.
In her illustrated story "My Henry" (2011) -- for children and adults -- an elderly lady fantasises about adventures with her late husband, such as climbing Mount Everest, hunting lions, and riding dinosaurs.
Kerr dedicated the book to her husband Thomas Nigel Kneale, a respected screenwriter who died in 2006. The couple met at the BBC, where they both worked, and married in 1954.
Commenting on the book in 2011, The Telegraph wrote: "For all the depth of underlying emotion, there's a celebratory feel to it, an unfeigned lightness of spirit that, throughout her life, has been a great boon.
"It has helped her cope with widowhood just as it allowed her to get over the loss, exile, penury and frustration of her early life."
In 2012 Kerr was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to children's literature and Holocaust education.