Friday, 18 May 2018

Around the World: Jordan

Around the World is an occasional series celebrating the female bodybuilders of a particular country, and examining any issues peculiar to muscle women there.

If you think the lady holding the medals looks just that little bit prouder than most with her haul, then you may well be right. Dana Soumbouloglou's two runner's-up medals (or plates, actually - nice touch that) probably mean a little bit more to her than they did to any of the other prize-winning competitors at the Stephanie Worsfold Natural Classic in Ontario last weekend. For one thing, they probably hadn't travelled over 9,000 miles just to compete there. Dana had - all the way from Jordan.

There is no legislation banning women from practising this sport in Jordan, says Fayez Abu Areeda, Head of the country's Bodybuilding and Fitness Committee, but Jordanians do not approve of women taking part. We do not have Bodybuilding tournaments for females here. And he does not foresee this situation changing. Our society will never accept a woman displaying her muscles in public, he adds.

23 year-old Dana started lifting six years ago, inspired most of all by her "idol" Juliana Malacarne. She faced criticism from within her own family first of all, particularly from her mother, as well as being told (by men) in the gym that Bodybuilding wasn't for women. I smile and try to explain, she says. Some are convinced, most are not. Her sister is one of the few she has brought round. It's given her more confidence, sister Nathalie says. She's more positive and creative, and a lot more charismatic now.

She's also gained enough support from within the male Bodybuilding community to have training partners and someone to share the costs of travelling to foreign competitions with. And through media exposure (within and outside Jordan) she's become something of a role model - not just for Arab women who want to lift, but also for those trying to empower women in the region more generally. Bodybuilding for women challenges deep-rooted notions concerning women, says Hala Ahed, one such activist. Women exist primarily to breed, and as motherhood is their key role, participation in other activities is limited. Women are "soft", she continues. They need a man's protection. Female Bodybuilders turn all of this on its head.

Dana may well be aware of her status, but from what I have read she's a lot less concerned about overturning cultural prejudice than she is about becoming Jordan's Malacarne. Her recent trip to Canada was just the first of many steps she plans to take before reaching the ultimate goal - the Olympia. Her recent runner's-up placing qualified her for a contest offering a pro card for winners - next year. I'm so proud of myself, and so hungry for the next step! she says. 2019, here I come!

Now if any of this is familiar, then you may recognise this woman...

Back in 2010, virtually the same story was being run in the English-language Arab media (and elsewhere) about Jordanian Farah Malhass. No matter what it takes, reported Gulf News at the time, 26-year-old Farah Malhass is determined to become the first Arab woman to enter an international bodybuilding competition. "No one understands why I want to be an international star in Figure," she says.

With her tattoos (another taboo) and her muscles, Farah was even more repulsive to traditionalists than Dana is, "a sitting target for Jordan's hardliners" according to the writer of the Gulf News piece. Like Dana, Farah travelled to Canada to compete, and according to Middle East Eye, she ended up settling in North America after 2010, although information about what happened to her after that has proved hard to find.

In another eight years' time, perhaps women in Jordan will be able to pursue their muscle dreams with less prejudice. Perhaps they'll even be allowed to compete without travelling abroad. Perhaps the country will take pride in the achievements of the "Jordanian Malacarne". Perhaps Dana will have become something of a national celebrity, and an inspiration to generations of women in the region. Perhaps...

But I wouldn't bet on it.

You can read Middle East Eye's full article on Dana here, and Gulf News' 2010 piece on Farah Malhass here. You can also follow Dana's quest on her Instagram, and she also has her own YouTube channel with (so far) a handful of clips from the end of April.

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