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Female grapplers take it to the mat in Egypt

The first Egyptian women to wrestle professionally are breaking taboos and fighting for recognition.

It’s taken decades for women to be taken seriously in US professional wrestling, so imagine the challenges Egyptian women face. Until recently, there was no such thing as women’s wrestling in the country, let alone a team comprising both women and men.

But Ashraf Mahrous, an Egyptian who’s coached a number of martial arts, made a move unprecedented in the history of Egyptian sports by founding the Egyptian Arab Federation of Professional Wrestlers league — the first professional program in Egypt to have male and female participants in this combat sport.

The first official match was held in September in Sharkeya governorate, but Mahrous, also known as Kabonga, founded the program five years ago in Ismailia. He started with only six wrestlers — all male. To spread interest in the sport, which is uncommon in Egypt, the coach toured other provinces to hold free shows in clubs using a portable wrestling ring he made himself. As time passed, his team grew to 50 wrestlers, including women.

“To let women join the wrestling team was a challenge for me, as it’s strange for this people in this society, men and women alike, to watch a match with female wrestlers,” Kabonga told Al-Monitor.

“I insisted on letting women join. I have now 13 women of the 50 total wrestlers. Their ages are between 17 and 48 years,” he said proudly.

When Kabonga uploaded photos and videos showing one of the women’s matches on the team’s Facebook page, he received mixed reactions. Some said that women’s bodies and physical abilities aren’t suited for wrestling and that it’s dangerous for them. Others praised this step and expressed admiration for the match.

“I have received many requests from women to join the wrestling team,” he said, smiling.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports, Kabonga said, doesn’t pay attention to wrestling, as it supports soccer more than any other sport.

“I don’t need financial support,” he said. “I just need the ministry to sponsor our matches — to present us as the first Egyptian wrestling team to include women. I hope they let us hold shows to promote tourism.”

He added, “I will never lose hope."

The first woman to join the team was 21-year-old Walaa Zeinelabidine. Before becoming a wrestler, she participated in kung fu, kickboxing, taekwondo and boxing.

“I know in some ways it’s a dangerous sport, but I found out that it’s not difficult,” Zeinelabidine told Al-Monitor. “I believe that there is no difference between boys and girls, and if I have the ability to do it, why not?”

Her athletic build makes wrestling easy for her, she said. She also has what appears to be superhuman strength, as she can pull a truck using her hair or teeth. Any would-be harasser should think twice before bothering her.

Zeinelabidine, who wears the hijab, recalled that one day when she and her friend were in a Cairo metro station, a man began to verbally harass her friend. Zeinelabidine broke his nose. The commuters were astonished and praised what she did, she said.

When she first began training, she was accompanied by her mother, who couldn’t imagine that women’s wrestling actually existed in Egypt.

“I am proud that my daughter has the power to participate in such a sport. My neighbors are happy for her, too,” Om Walaa told Al-Monitor. “Every sport has its exercises and rules, that’s why I’m not afraid for her — on the contrary, I encourage her."

Not all the women wrestlers have Zeinelabidine’s powerful build, and some young women weren’t involved in sports at all before joining the team.

Dina Emad is one of them. She is a student in the media department of Ain Shams University. She likes wrestling and watches the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) championship regularly. She is a big fan of John Cena.

One day she was asked by a lecturer on her faculty to interview the founder of the women’s wrestling team.

“At first I was astonished that we even have women wrestlers in Egypt. So I was eager to meet that man and see the matches for myself,” Emad told Al-Monitor. “After interviewing him, attending one of their shows and seeing their powerful performance, my jaw dropped. I was attracted to this martial art and asked the coach to let me join them.”

The 20-year-old trained for 18 months to become part of the team.

She noted that there are no matches between men and women and no dangerous stunts like those performed in the WWE. “Each one of us can select our opponent. There is no obligation.” Emad said.

Wrestling gives Emad more self-confidence, endurance and fitness, and helps her protect herself, she said.

“I believe that one day our Egyptian team will tour the world. I am proud to be one of them,” she added.

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