Bushra Al-Hajjar, an Iraqi boxer, enters the arena with her gloves elevated to eye level and strikes out at her sparring partner.

Her greater challenge, though, is to break down social taboos.
The sight of a women’s boxing arena in Iraq’s Shiite city of Najaf is odd, but the 35-year-old boxing coach, like others here, is overcoming deeply ingrained taboos.

“I have a full training area at home, complete with mats and a punching bag,” the mother of two, who also practices karate, explained.

In December, Hajjar won gold in the 70 kilogram weight class at a boxing tournament in Baghdad, Iraq’s capital.
“My family and friends are really supportive, and they’re quite satisfied with where I’ve gotten to,” she remarked, her blue headscarf pulled tight around her head.

She goes to a private institution in Najaf, 100 kilometers south of Baghdad, twice a week to exercise and teach sports.
Hajjar concedes that her trip has raised questions in Iraq’s largely traditional society, notably in Najaf.

“We’ve had a lot of challenges,” she explained. “We live in a conservative society that has a hard time understanding things like this.”

“Today, there are several halls,” she remarked, recalling the uproar when women’s training facilities initially opened.
“We live in a macho environment that inhibits success for women,” boxing pupil Ola Mustafa, 16, remarked as she took a break from her punching bag.

She did, however, say that she had the backing of not only her trainer, but also her parents and brother, indicating that social change is underway.

“People are slowly coming to terms with it,” she remarked. “The more girls that try it out, the more society will tolerate it.”
Iraqi women participating in boxing is a “new phenomena,” according to Iraqi boxing federation head Ali Taklif, but it is gaining traction. “There is a lot of interest from girls,” he remarked, noting that Iraq already has around 20 women’s boxing clubs.

In a December tournament, more than 100 women boxers competed in all divisions, he added.

However, “the discipline, like other sports (in Iraq), suffers from a lack of infrastructure, training facilities, and equipment.”
Iraq has a proud heritage of women in sports in the past, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.

Women’s teams competed in regional tournaments in a variety of sports, including basketball, volleyball, and cycling.
However, sanctions, decades of violence, and a hardening of traditional societal values brought this era to an end, with only the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq remaining untouched.

In recent years, there has been a slight reverse, with women taking up a variety of sports, including kickboxing. Boxing runs in the family for Hajjer Ghazi, who earned a silver medal at the age of 13 in December.

Her father, a retired professional boxer, urged his children to pursue a career in the sport.

Her older brother Ali, as well as her sisters, are also boxers.
In their hometown of Amara in southeastern Iraq, Ali said, “Our father supports us more than the state does.”

“Women have the right to enjoy sports, it’s only normal,” Hassanein Ghazi, a 55-year-old truck driver who won multiple gold in his time, argues.

He acknowledges that certain “sensitivities” still exist, which are tied to old tribal beliefs.

“When their coach wants them to run,” he explained, “he takes them to the outskirts of town,” away from the eyes of bystanders.

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