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Landing A Punch In The Face Of Gender Taboos

An angle grinder fitted with a diamond blade… well, Bushra Al Hajjar, a 35-year-old Iraqi boxing instructor, has started being the Change. She, as the mother of two children, has not confined herself to performing household chores, and taking care of her children, as per the existing social norms in her country. The society in which she is born expects that only highly educated women get to teach in educational institutions. However, Bushra is different from others, as she still targets the faces of her opponents inside the boxing ring. Her actual target is the society that is dominated by the men, who have never accepted the success of women, wholeheartedly. Bushra wants to break this pattern with her Jabs, Crosses, Hooks and Uppercuts.

In a highly conservative Muslim society, like Iraq of present days, one needs a lot of courage to act against the social norms. However, modernists in Iraq are optimistic that more women would join hands with Bushra in the coming years. Probably, many Iraqi women have started following Bushra, as the trend to learn boxing, especially among girls, has suddenly increased. It seems that the Iraqi women engaging in boxing is aimed at showering the existing gender taboos with sucker punches. Although in a country, like Iraq, Boxing Academies for girls are not very common, as the thought of female boxers possibly tend to make men feel uncomfortable on the streets. Bushra, who won gold in the 70kg-class at a boxing tournament in Baghdad in December, ignores all these. “At home, I have a full training room, with mats and a punching bag,” she said.

Bushra Al Hajjar (R) during a training session with her Coach Hassan Khalil

Bushra is from Najaf or An-Najaf al-Ashraf (also known as Baniqia), a city in central Iraq about 160km south of Baghdad. Apart from practicing boxing, Bushra also trains youngsters, and she is also a sports teacher at a private university in Najaf. She has admitted that her adventure has raised eyebrows, saying: “My family and friends are very supportive, they’re very happy with the level I’ve reached.” Recalling her struggle, the 35-year-old stressed: “We’ve come across many difficulties. We’re a conservative society that has difficulty accepting these kinds of things. People staged protests when training facilities first opened for women. Today, there are many halls.

Ali Taklif, the President of Iraqi Boxing Federation, too, has acknowledged that women engaging in the sport is a “recent phenomenon“, and it is steadily gaining ground. “There is a lot of demand from females wanting to join. Like other sports (in Iraq), the discipline suffers from a lack of infrastructure, training facilities and equipment,” he further said. Taklif has informed the media that his country now has around 20 women’s boxing clubs, as more than 100 women boxers took part in the tournament in December, in various categories.

However, Taklif has no explanation as to why boxing has suddenly gained popularity. Iraqi girls have always been interested in sports. In the 1970s and 1980s, they used to take part in local, national and regional basketball, volleyball and cycling tournaments on a regular basis. The scenario changed after the fall of Saddam Hussein, as the Patriarchal System suppressed the women. While taking a break from her punching bag, boxing student Ola Mustafa (16) stressed: “We live in a macho society that opposes success for women. People are gradually beginning to accept it. If more girls try it out, society will automatically come to accept it.” Ola claimed that she enjoyed the support of her trainer, parents and brother.

Ola Mustafa during a training session at the Islamic University in Najaf

Ola knows that it will take time to achieve that goal. The 13-year-old Hajer Hassanein Ghazi won a silver medal in the December tournament, as boxing, seemingly, is in her blood. Her father Hassanein Ghazi, a 55-year-old truck driver, is a veteran professional boxer. He has always encouraged his children to follow in his footsteps. Hence, both of Hajer’s sisters and elder brother Ali have also become boxers. “Our father supports us more than the state does,” said Hajer, who is from Amara in south-western Iraq.

Hajer Hassanein Ghazi preparing for an international competition in Amarah

Still, Hassanein accompanies his daughter when her coach asks Hajer to run, so that the neighbours do not make negative comments when they see the girl running. Hassanein, who had won several medals in his heyday, insisted: “Women have the right to play sports, it’s only normal. However, there are certain sensitivities, linked to traditional tribal values. When their coach wants them to run, I take them to the outskirts of town, away from too many onlookers.” With the Iraqi girls taking up a range of sports, including kickboxing, one can hope that they would kick out Patriarchal Shackles from the society in near future.

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