Female Arab athletes: lives through a lens

We talk to Brigitte and Marian Lacombe, the sisters behind a photography and video exhibition at Sotheby's London that shows the physical and emotional strength of Arab women in sport.

Noor Al Malki couldn't believe it when she was told that she was going to represent her country, Qatar, in the Olympics. "Me?" she says, before breaking into a huge smile on camera.

At 17 years old, Al Malki is making history as one of the first three women ever to represent Qatar at the Olympics. Al Malki, who is competing in the 100m sprint, runs wearing a bandanna to cover her hair. She says she first felt shy running without a veil - but her brothers encouraged her.

"They said just be strong," she says. "Sport has taught me that I can do anything." Al Malki's story of how sport has inspired her is just one of many such stories being shared at an exhibition in London, which sets out to celebrate Arab sportswomen. The exhibition, called Hey'Ya (translated as 'Let's go'), features powerful, large-scale portraits and moving video footage of more than 50 Arab sportswomen from 20 Arab countries, put together by the photographer Brigitte Lacombe and her sister, the celebrated documentary filmmaker Marian Lacombe.

The Lacombe sisters were commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority as part of a series of initiatives to enhance awareness and debate about women in sport.

"To be offered a project such as this was a dream," says Brigitte, an award-winning photographer whose work appears in The New York Times magazine, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. "I was able to work on subjects I have always been interested in - women and the Arab world - as well as explore something entirely new, which was sport."

Hey'Ya: Arab Women in Sport is the result of 18 months of hard work. The Lacombes first travelled to Doha last December while the Arab Games were taking place to start the project, and then moved on to Morocco and Saudi Arabia to photograph and film more women.

The end result is a series of striking, powerful and dramatic portraits of sportswomen doing what they love most - practising their sport. The athlete Feta Ahamada, from the Comoros Islands off the coast of Mozambique, stands strong and poised, holding her runner's pose. Her muscles ripple as she stares determinedly past the camera, towards her goal. The Sudanese athletic team, a squad of five young women, are warming up in their bright red Sudan tops - a few of them are laughing infectiously to the camera. The Qatari gymnast Nadine Wahdan is shot in action in a star-jump, the beads on her red leotard catching the light. Some of the women are covered, but many are not.

"I want people to see that all women from the Middle East are different and are not the same," says Brigitte. "There is so much diversity between these women and it's very important for people outside of the Arab world to appreciate that."

The physical strength of the women, as shown in the photographs, is enhanced by the emotional strength they share in the video footage, filmed by Marian.

The Palestinian runner Woroud Sawalha talks straight to the camera: "Islam doesn't prevent women from sports." In another historic first, Sawalha is participating in the women's 800m event at London 2012. "I will try to change society's views," she says. In a different video clip, Dhai Al Mulla, an athlete from Kuwait, says: "Everybody fights against women taking part. We don't have enough support or enough coaches. But we love it, so we'll do it. Running makes my day."

"Some of these women are so young, and they are pioneers," says Marian. "It is not always easy for them, but everything they have done is such an achievement. The thing that struck me most was that they do not compete for individual performance - they compete to help each other and inspire other women. There's a real sense of responsibility of opening doors for girls who are younger than them."

"I hope people will feel exhilarated by the sense of joy and beauty and strength they see in these women," says Brigitte. "They are no different to any one else."

- Hey'Ya: Arab Women in Sport by Brigitte Lacombe and Marian Lacombe is running at Sotheby's London until August 11 and will then move to the QMA Gallery Katara in Doha next spring

Dalma Malhas, equestrian, Saudi Arabia

American-born and raised, Malhas was set to make Olympic history this year as the first woman to ever represent Saudi Arabia in the games. But after her horse, named Caramell XS, reportedly sustained an injury, her place in showjumping was withdrawn. That doesn't diminish Malhas's sporting prowess in her chosen field - the 20-year-old won bronze in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010. Malhas trained in Italy, under the guidance of her mother, Arwa Mutabagani, also a former show jumper. In Hey'Ya, Malhas is photographed protectively embracing her horse. In the video footage, she says she hopes her achievements will "trigger hope for a lot of Arab girls - not just Saudi girls - but all Arab girls".

Mariam Hussein, basketball player, Somalia

The captain of Somalia’s women’s basketball team, Mariam Hussein has been described as the country’s “national basketball ace” in the international press. The 27-year-old was born in Somalia, but won a scholarship to the US and now lives in Canada. Last year, Hussein led her team to victory in the Pan Arab Games in Doha, beating Qatar and Kuwait. In her Hey’Ya video, she says sport has given her “confidence, structure and order”.

Nada Mohammed Wafa Arkaji, swimmer, Qatar

Nada Arkaji has been swimming since she was nine years old. She’s now 17 and will be competing in the 50m freestyle swimming event at this year’s Olympics. She’s been preparing for the Games by training in the pool every day for two hours; her goal is to beat her personal best of 30 seconds. In her video interview for Hey’Ya, she says being in the water makes her feel free. “It doesn’t matter if I come first, second or last. This is such a big achievement.”

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