Iraqi female wrestlers could heal scars from the country's past

An unlikely group of young women have taken to the wrestling mat with dreams of making it to the Olympics. Like all wrestlers, these women go through grueling practices, get bloody noses and appreciate the challenge of winning a wrestling match.

Unlike other wrestlers, these women wrestle in Iraq. The New York Times tells a fascinating tale of women in Diwaniya, a city south of Baghdad. Women in their late teens and early 20s practice in a gymnasium, only after the men have cleared out.

Iraq is not the only Arab country or mostly Islamic country to sponsor wrestling for women -- Egypt and Morocco both fielded teams for the Olympics, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan both competed in the 2009 Asian wrestling championships -- but they are facing backlash in Diwaniya.

Iraq’s wrestling federation endorsed the team, but an official from that body refused to come to Diwaniya for the competition in June, fearing he would be killed, according to Mr. Hamdani.

In May angry tribal leaders petitioned the provincial council to ban the team after a television station showed one of the wrestlers practicing with her coach ... Many are taunted and cursed whenever they venture to the market. They are ostracized at school and constantly hectored by their teachers.

Mrs. Kadhim, who has five daughters on the team, was recently advised by relatives to leave Diwaniya and received threatening messages on her cellphone.

Iraqi wrestling, like all Iraqi Olympic sports, is still suffering from being ruled by the tyrannical son of Saddam Hussein, Uday. For nearly 20 years, Uday instilled fear in his athletes. They were tortured for losing contests, whipped, dragged over pavement, and hit with electrical prods. Some athletes were thought to be murdered.

Though Uday has been dead since 2003 -- killed in a U.S. raid -- his legacy remains. Before he took over, Iraq had as many as 47 athletes compete in the Olympics. In 2008, only four competed. Athletes were justifiably afraid of the consequences for losing.

Women's wrestling could provide a shot in the arm for Iraqi sports. The young women wrestling in Diwaniya are clearly determined and excited to wrestle, considering that they haven't quit despite death threats. After they started their club, three other teams followed suit.

Though the women don't have the support of traditional clerics, they do have supporters of some locals, calling the female grapplers a "sign of evolution and freedom." Not all religious leaders have a problem with women's wrestling, as long as the women are properly covered.

With women's wrestling growing at an exponential rate, it could be the perfect sport for these young ladies. After all, wrestling requires toughness, and who could deny that these young women are tough?

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