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

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.”


Orange is the new grey for Bangladesh beards

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on January 24, 2019 shows men with henna-dyed beards in Dhaka on December 24, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2019

Orange is the new grey for Bangladesh beards

  • It is now virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Bangladesh city without seeing a colored beard

DHAKA, BANGLADESH: From shades of startling red to hues of vivid tangerine, brightly colored beards have become a fashion statement on the streets of Bangladesh capital Dhaka.
Facial hair of sunset tones is now the go-to look for older men wanting to take off the years, with an array of henna options available to the style-conscious.
“I have been using it on my hair for the last two months. I like it,” says Mahbubul Bashar, in his 50s, whose smile reflected his joy at his new look.
Abul Mia, a 60-year-old porter at a local vegetable market, agrees that the vibrant coloring can be transformative.
“I love it. My family says I look a lot younger and handsome,” he adds.
While henna has been used widely in the country for decades, it has reached new heights of popularity. It is now virtually impossible to walk down a street in a Bangladesh city without seeing a colored beard.
Orange hair — whether it’s beards, moustaches or on heads — is everywhere, thanks to the popularity of the colored dye produced by the flowering henna plant.
“Putting henna on has become a fashion choice in recent years for elder men,” confirms Didarul Dipu, head fashion journalist at Canvas magazine.
“The powder is easily found in neighborhood stores and easy to put on,” he adds.
But the quest for youth is not the only reason why more and more Dhaka barbers are adding beard and hair coloring to their services.
Top imams also increasingly use henna powder color in what experts say is a move to prove their Muslim credentials as some religious texts say the prophet Mohammed dyed his hair.
In Bangladesh most of the population of 168 million is Muslim.
“I heard from clerics that the prophet Mohammed used henna on his beard. I am just following,” says Dhaka resident Abu Taher.

Henna has long been a tradition at South Asian weddings. Brides and grooms use henna paste to trace intricate patterns on their hands for wedding parties.
It has also long been used in Muslim communities in Asia and the Middle East for beards.
Previously, aficionados created the dye by crushing henna leaves to form a paste. It was messy and time-consuming but modern henna powder is far more user-friendly.
Taher, who goes by one name, believes the dye has given his beard added vigour.
“Look at this growth. Isn’t it strong?” he exclaims pointing to his chin.
“The powder turns the grey hair red but does not change the remaining black hair,” he explains.
Some believe henna powder has health benefits and, as it is natural rather than created using man-made chemicals like some dyes, does not cause any medical issues.
The new trend has also boosted barbers’ fortunes — more men feel compelled to dye their hair and to do it more often at the salons.
“In the past we hardly would get any customers for this,” recalls Shuvo Das, who works at the Mahin Hairdressers in Dhaka’s Shaheenbagh neighborhood.
“But now there are clients who come every week to get their beard dyed,” he says.
“It takes about 40 minutes to make the beard reddish and shiny. It is also cheap. A pack cost only 15 taka (four US cents),” Das explains as he massages the dye mixture — imported from India — into a customer’s beard.
According to Dhaka University sociology professor Monirul Islam Khan, the growing number of henna beards “is a sign of increasing Muslim fervor in Bangladeshi society.”
But, he adds, even those who are not strict followers do it.
He explains: “They want to look younger. Even the women are getting fond of it as it makes their hair glitter.”