BAGHDAD: A conservative, Shiite-majority area of Baghdad serves as the unlikely base for Iraq's first female national weightlifting team, which is due to compete in Morocco on Thursday.
The team of four usually trains at a club in Sadr city, an area better known for fierce battles between US soldiers and Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militiamen than it is for breaking ground in women's rights.
Hoda, a 15-year-old Iraqi girl who is one of the team's members, claps her hands together, shouts, and raises 40 kilogrammes (80 pounds) aloft in a manoeuvre known as the “snatch” in which the bar is lifted in one motion.
She then lets it fall with a grimace.
It is far from her record but as a female weightlifter in Iraq, she faces not only physical challenges but also those posed by conservative views on what is considered appropriate or inappropriate for women.
A gym near Sadr City in which three of the team's members are training is dominated by men, a dozen of whom rhythmically perform the “snatch” and the “clean and jerk,” another manoeuvre where the bar is first raised to the shoulders.
Faces flush and muscles bulge as bars holding 80 kilogrammes or more are raised, then released. The air is saturated with sweat and chalk, which allows a better grip on the weights.
In one corner, Hoda, wearing a worn tracksuit, waits for her turn to lift again.
“I love the sport,” she said. “I used to follow the championships on television and I went to a club and registered.”
She has since set personal bests of 60 kilogrammes in the snatch, and 72 kilogrammes in the clean and jerk, which she and her teammates hope to build on in the Arab weightlifting championship in the Moroccan capital Rabat.
“I wish to win the gold medal,” Hoda said.
She makes it sound almost easy but with the growing influence of religious conservatives on social issues in the years since the 2003 US-led invasion, many Iraqi women have seen their freedoms decline.
Hoda and her teammates, however, hardly complain.
Tiba Nabil, a very shy 13-year-old, admits that she would like a room in the gym reserved for women but said her family had encouraged her to join the sport.
The team's coach, Abbas Ahmed Abbas, who had the idea of setting up a national women's weightlifting squad a year ago, admitted that he has had to contend with local sensitivities.
“This matter is very sensitive in Iraq; we are a Muslim ... country,” he said. “When I started, I considered the feelings of the people. I care about the traditions in a Muslim society.”
The issue of the hijab, the headscarf worn by many Iraqi women over their hair in public, soon arose. Hoda and Tiba wear it coming and going from the gym but they remove it when they train.
“I am Iraqi, not like the athletes from outside Iraq who are free to wear whatever they like. I have the hijab but it is not easy to wear it for weightlifting,” Hoda said.
But Mustafa Razi, one of the many heavily muscled men at the gym, is not bothered.
These “girls are no problem for training,” he said, preparing to lift a good 100 kilogrammes aloft.