Women across Iraq are making their mark by breaking social norms and helping to propel the country's sporting scene
Female athletes from the autonomous Kurdish region are helping to put Iraq back on the map.
The Kurdistan Region has some of the country’s toughest female competitors, best-equipped facilities and most experienced coaches. This has most emphatically been shown in the country’s recent cycling victories.
Kurdish women have helped propel the Iraqi female cycling team to bronze and silver medal victories during a landmark pan-Arab race earlier this year; and the three medals won by Kurdish female cyclists in Algeria this September are further proof of the region’s sporting prowess.
The silver-winning athlete, Mazda Rafiq, hails from the Kurdish region’s second city, Sulaimaniyah.
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to represent Iraq in a cycling race, and today I was able to do that,” said the 20-year-old, who trains in the region’s capital, Erbil.
The triumph of Ms. Rafiq and her fellow athletes represents something of a rebirth in women’s sport in Iraq. Forty years ago, almost all of Iraq’s provinces had thriving female athletic scenes, with active clubs in a range of different sports.
But violent conflict in the 80s coupled with an international embargo sent the sporting development projects that had been empowering women screeching to a halt. Instability, terror and growing conservatism in parts of Iraqi society further eroded sporting culture for women, and the initial progress appeared to have been lost.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq, however, has managed to buck these trends, with Kurdish women in the midst of what appears to be an athletic awakening. Ms. Rafiq agrees, crediting the recent victories to “the support of society and our parents”.
Iraq’s clubs and national teams are also benefitting from this renaissance, with teams in different regions regularly poaching Kurdish athletes for national and regional competitions. “They are better, and the club knows they’ll help them get a better score,” said Sajed Salim, of Iraq’s Cycling Federation.
Women in the southern city of Diwaniyah are also challenging societal norms, establishing the city’s first wrestling team, with some members also winning accolades in international competitions in the region. While women’s sport is not quite as developed in the more conservative regions in southern Iraq as they are in the northern Kurdish provinces, this achievement shows the strides taken by female athletes across Iraq.
Women’s volleyball coach Randy Metti speculates that the relaxed social norms in the semi-autonomous region may be a factor in the success of Kurdish female athletes.
This is clear from the way that the athletes of the Akad Ainkawa women’s volleyball team, whom Mr Metti trains in Erbil three times per week, combine their motherhood duties with their sporting practice. Player Mirna Najeeb brings her seven-month-old daughter to every training session.
“I was advised not to exercise six months after giving birth but I told the whole world that I would start again,” she said.
Ms Najeeb and fellow Akad players are regularly called up to Iraq’s national team to compete internationally.
“A player has everything here – modern training facilities, interested clubs, and great coaches,” she said.
What is more, the clubs enjoy widespread public support, which often translates into material support for local teams. This allows them to pursue more training and constantly improve.
While recent attacks on high-profile social media influencers had cast a shadow on the progress made on women’s rights, the achievements of these athletes show that women in Iraq are still determined to make their mark in the country and break societal norms.