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Olympic weightlifter blazes a trail for Gulf women

Najwan El Zawawi didn't have the Olympics in mind when she arrived to set up a weightlifting program in the United Arab Emirates four years ago.

Her main aim was just to recruit a handful of girls whose families allowed them to participate, no small task considering no Gulf nation had ever established a women's team. Many Emiratis in this conservative Muslim country confuse the sport with body building and some fear that allowing their girls to participate would lead to injuries or a masculine physique which could, in turn, erode marriage prospects.

The number of school girls venturing to the team's training gym in Dubai has grown into double figures and this year El Zawawi, a former Egyptian Olympic lifter, was rewarded for her perseverance. The UAE team did well enough at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea to earn a spot at the London Olympics — a first for a Gulf country.

"Four years ago, I thought it would be impossible to reach the Olympics," said El Zawawi, who competed in the 69-kilogram category at the 2000 Sydney Games. "But then we went to South Korea and planned how as a team we could get one spot in the Olympics. The plan was better than other countries. We knew we could do better at qualifying at heavyweight and superheavyweight division."

Four girls returned to the UAE to compete for the one spot and Khadija Mohammed, a frizzy-haired, 17-year-old student with a disarming smile, was chosen. She has only been lifting for two years but now has the chance to make history in the 75-kilogram category.

"I am so happy and I will challenge myself and I will work hard to win a medal," said Mohammed, speaking above the clang of weights and laughter of her teammates mastering the clean and jerk and snatch. "I will be so happy to represent the UAE and accomplish something for the country."

Mohammed will not only make history as the first female lifter from the Gulf at the Olympics but the first female Emirati to qualify outright for the Olympics. The UAE sent its first two women the Olympics in 2008 — among them Sheikha Maitha bint Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the daughter of the Dubai ruler — but they both received wild-card invitations from the International Olympic Committee.

Mohammed also will be the first woman weightlifter to wear a hijab or Muslim head scarf at the Olympics as well as a newly-approved unitard that covers most of her body.

She is not expected to challenge for a medal because she is less experienced than the favorites in her weight category, which includes Nadezda Evstyukhina of Russia, Svetlana Podobedova of Kazakhstan and Lidia Valentin of Spain. She only finished seventh in qualifying.

But taking the stage in the UAE colors will go a long way to establishing the sport for women in the region.

"It will be a shocking thing for people to know that a girl (from the UAE) is participating," Mohammed said, dismissing those who have criticized the female weightlifters on social networking sites as not being true Emiratis and being an embarrassment to the country.

"In the UAE, it is a girls' sport as the girls qualified, not the boys."

Her teammate and friend Alanood Abdulla Faraj said Mohammed's participation in London will be a boon to women.

"I've been told this is not for women and this will ruin my body and that we should just go shopping," Faraj said. "Women can do more. There are women who are ministers, presidents of countries who are women. So the status of women will only go higher by playing this sport."

There are already supporters for the women. Mohammed's family encouraged her to make the switch from football and the Emirates Weightlifting Federation has been quick to embrace her success.

"Of course, we are really proud of this big achievement," said Faisal Yousif Hammadi, the federation's secretary general who attended a promotional event aimed at introducing Mohammed to the public.

"It is maybe a hard sport. In the Gulf, they are keeping their culture," he said. "But after they saw our achievements, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Qatar have started to think about building a team, hiring a women's coach."

The International Weightlifting Federation also has welcomed the UAE's progress and expects more Muslim countries to follow the nation's path after it changed its policies last year to allow a one-piece uniform covering the full body. It always allowed a hijab.

"This success is a great achievement for weightlifting and reinforces its ideals of inclusion and openness," IWF President Tamas Ajan said in an e-mail. "The participation of Ms. Mohammed is a driving force to encourage more women to start practicing weightlifting not only within the Gulf Countries, but all around the world."

But the team's success has yet to bring rewards at home.

The federation operates out of a villa and has struggled just to find space for the men's and women's teams to train. They were renting a rundown weight room in a Dubai sports club but have been told that lease will be cancelled later this year. The teams also lack funding to set up adequate training camps outside the country or attend more than a handful of competitions each year.

"I hope the government and federation takes more interest and provide more support for the girls," El Zawawi said. "I feel bad because we don't get any support. I have dreams in the future of four or five girls going to the Olympics. But I need support."

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Follow Michael Casey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mcasey1

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