One of Diwaniya's women's kabaddi teams in action. (photo: Manar al-Zubaidi)
The captain of Iraq’s kabaddi team is frustrated. Ilham Abdul-Hussein says that many of her team mates have quit the sport – an intense combination of wrestling, speed and strength that originated in ancient India – because it’s seen as inappropriate for women.
Of the team members who have left, Abdul-Hussein, who lives in Diwaniya, says, they would often be harassed. “The audience would describe them as women of loose morals,” Abdul-Hussein explains. “This sort of harassment tended to happen after the game, after women left the grounds. It has an impact. And,” she adds, “there are many girls who’d like to try, who’d like to join the team, but their families won’t let them because they are conservative and fear something might happen to their daughters. At my school, I know of about 20 girls who were not allowed to practice kabaddi,” says the student.
Abdul-Hussein insists she will keep playing though. Her parents support her and her father even attends the games to demonstrate that.
Headscarves are not compulsory but it means there is less likelihood of harassment from the audience, the coach says.
“I really enjoy the team spirit of the game,” Abdul-Hussein says. “Sometimes there are negative attitudes but I am prepared for that. I organize my time so that I can accommodate my education – I want to be a lawyer – and my hobby.”
One of Abdul-Hussein’s team mates chimed in. “My family is very sporty,” explains Hanin Qassim, 16. “My father and brothers play football and I’ve loved sport since I was young. I joined the team without a moment’s thought,” she declares, adding that she has now quit athletics to focus on kabaddi.
“It’s a new sport for us and it makes us physically fit and strong,” Qassim explains.
Kabaddi originates in ancient India and has since been imported to many other Asian nations and further afield; it is estimated that around 32 countries now play the game, including Denmark, Kenya and Argentina. A fast and furious game takes 40 minutes and sees a team of seven “raiders” trying to enter the seven “defenders” territory to tag them. The defenders try to prevent the raiders from tagging their team member and it’s often described as a combination of wrestling and tag. The game is particularly big in India, the nation that often wins the world championship, where there is a professional league and where the games attract millions of television viewers.
Iraq now has its own organization, the Iraqi Central Kabaddi Association, or ICKA, and more than 40 clubs for male players, as well as an estimated eight for females. The game has been being played in Iraq for two years and the ICKA was founded last year.
In Diwaniya, kabaddi has been popularized by former Iraqi wrestling champion and five-time national wrestling coach of the year, Hamid al-Hamdani, who also successfully promoted women’s wrestling in the mostly-conservative province.
“The idea of introducing kabaddi to Iraq came about in 2014,” al-Hamdani told NIQASH. “And then really started to get going in 2015. We started planning then, encouraged by other coaches and players.”
With the support of his colleagues, al-Hamdani organized the ICKA as well as the first two tournaments for both men and women.
“More than 80 women have joined our teams and the number is increasing,” al-Hamdani told NIQASH. “We’ve had 32 events, like training, tournaments and camps, all of which we have funded ourselves. We even have seven women trained as referees.”
Neighbouring Iran, which is also very active on the kabaddi scene has helped provide trainers for both male and female teams.
Al-Hamdani hopes that eventually kabaddi will be recognized as an Olympic sport and that Iraq will be ready to furnish a team to compete.
Kabaddi has been particularly popular in Diwaniya and clubs have sprung up in the suburbs as well. There are four main clubs here – Al Diwaniyah, Al Nibour, Afak and Al Yaqatha. There are also clubs further afield in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Diyala, Basra and Nasiriyah, among others.
Although there are difficulties when it comes to training local women, the club welcomes any who’d like to give it a try, as long as they are physically able, says Alaa Hussein, who coaches at the Al Diwaniya club.
The main problem is that women are often not as available for training sessions as men. Hussein says he also talks to the women about whether they might want to wear a head scarf while they are playing or not. It’s not compulsory but, he concedes, if the female players do wear their headscarves, it means there is less likelihood of harassment from audience members; it also helps the club work through any hassles they will get from local schools or team management.
And there are other issues for the kabaddi players too: While it’s becoming more popular the sport remains relatively underfunded. Most of the halls used as a playing grounds are not outfitted for the game, lacking, for example, carpeted floors or matts, to protect players.
Nonetheless it hasn’t deterred people like Abdul-Hussein and her team.
The game is challenging and it requires courage, says Tamara Yassin, 18, who was one of the first local girls to take up kabaddi in Diwaniya in 2015.
“But this sport also allows me to send a message to everybody: Iraqi women are just as brave as Iraqi men and they can also play games like this, that are physically demanding,” she concludes.