Middle Eastern women are reshaping weightlifting's gender landscape
Apart from raising the bar for their fellow competitors, Middle Eastern women are also taking steps to shift the gender balance in weightlifting.
Dressed in a full-length unitard and a red sports hijab, 18-year-old Sara Ahmed propelled a barbell carrying more than 140 kilograms above her head and smiled before releasing the bar and allowing the weights to crash back down.
Ahmed had just secured a bronze medal in the 69kg weight class at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. As her podium finish was confirmed, she collapsed in tears and hugged her coach as the significance of her momentous achievement settled over her. She had just became the first Arab woman to receive an Olympic weightlifting medal and the first Egyptian woman to receive an Olympic medal on the podium in any discipline.
"I hope it will encourage other girls to take up the sport,” Ahmed told Channel News Asia following her historic achievement. “A new weightlifting generation can be born, a new beginning.”
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Ahmed’s achievement came four years after Egyptian lifter Abeer Abdelrahman finished 5th in the 2012 Olympics in London. However, Abdelrahman was awarded a silver medal retrospectively after the three medallists subsequently failed doping tests. And while Abdelrahman’s may have technically been Egypt’s first female Olympic medalist, it was Ahmed’s achievement that led to a surge in women participating in weightlifting.
Prior to Ahmed’s victory, which also happened to be the first time that Egypt had won a weightlifting medal since 1948, there were fewer than two dozen female weightlifting competitors. By 2018, that figure had increased tenfold to more than 300, according to the Egyptian Weightlifting Federation.
While Ahmed has continued to add to her achievements by winning gold medals 2018 Mediterranean Games and the 2022 World Championships, a new generation of Middle Eastern women has emerged to share in her glory.
Saudi’s Hanan Al-Ameri, then 19, won six gold medals at the 2021 Arab Weightlifting Championships. In 2022, Elham Hosseini became the first Iranian woman to win gold at the Asian Weightlifting Championships held in Manama, Bahrain. She is also the record holder in the Iranian women's 76 and 81 kg weightlifting categories.
Apart from raising the bar for their fellow competitors, Middle Eastern women are also taking steps to shift the gender balance. The Asian Weightlifting Federation (AWF) Athletes Commission currently features more women than men, including Hosseini. The commission is chaired by Saudi Arabian lifter Ghada Altassan.
The AWF has also established a Gender Equity Commission, which was proposed by Bahrain Weightlifting Federation (BWF) President Eshaq Ebrahim Eshaq and will be chaired by BWF board member Nayla Al Meer.
Such ambition and newfound representation would not have been possible just a few years ago, as women from Saudi Arabia and Iran were barred by the Islamic nations from participating in weightlifting.
Iran, a country with an impressive weightlifting history that includes seven Olympic gold medals this century, lifted the ban in 2017, allowing women weightlifters to compete internationally for the first time. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, lifted its ban on women participating in sports, opening up new opportunities for Saudi women to get active and compete in athletic events.
It is worth noting that women were barred from weightlifting until 1983. After a change to the IWF's rules, women began competing at the World Championships from 1987 and at the Olympic Games from 2000.
Despite having several decades of experience to catch up on, Saudi went on to host its first-ever women’s weightlifting championships in 2021, with a total of 35 weightlifters from across nine gyms participating. The kingdom is now set to host the 2023 World Weightlifting Championship, which is set to take place between Sep 2-17, 2023. The event is expected to draw 1500 athletes from 130 countries and will serve as a qualifier for the 2024 Olympic Games.
Altassan, 34, noted that the changes in Saudi Arabia began in 2016, when there was a “vision” to open doors and support women across various industries. Her statement is in reference to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 masterplan, which aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s heavy dependence on oil by developing the country’s tertiary sector. The kingdom has also invested heavily in sports and entertainment, with the intention of establishing itself as an international hub and tourism destination.
The kingdom’s sports portfolio includes an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, the world’s richest horse race, massive investments in esports and gaming and a professional golf tour with ambitions to rival the PGA tour. The kingdom’s investment fund also financed the purchase of English Premier League team Newcastle United, and was even reportedly in the running to purchase the WWE before the merger was finalized.
Of course, much of Bin Salman’s Vision 2030 campaign and the reforms that have come along with it have been enacted primarily as a means to create a more positive international image of Saudi Arabia and to distract attention away from the atrocities still being committed by Bin Salman’s regime. Bin Salman may be eager to put a veneer of progressive Islam on his country, but women and other marginalized groups still face tremendous oppression under his rule. Saudi women are still under the guardianship system and are routinely targeted for expressing dissent.
In August 2022, Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University, was given a 34-year prison sentence for using Twitter to follow and retweet dissidents and activists. Al-Shehab is a mother of two young children and was not known as a vocal activist inside the kingdom. She had about 2000 followers on Twitter and was initially expected to serve a three-year sentence. However, an appeals court Monday imposed a sentence of 34 years in prison followed by a 34-year travel ban.
Later that same month, another Saudi woman was handed a 45-year prison sentence for “using the internet to tear the social fabric” and “violating public order by using social media.” The draconian sentencing emphasizes the kingdom’s continued oppression of female dissidents despite claims of reform and progress.
And yet, despite the obstacles facing them and the governments looking to take advantage of their successes, Middle Eastern women appear to be thriving in the world of weightlifting.
“Our men reached the Olympics, and we don’t see a reason why our women can’t,” Altassan said. "Our ambition embraces the sky."