Iraqi jiu-jitsu gold medallist Ishtar Azzawi hopes to inspire other women in her war-torn country

But for that to happen, cultural barriers must first be broken down, says the Abu Dhabi-based fighter

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Iraq has the potential to become a force in women's jiu-jitsu but only if cultural barriers can be broken down, says the country’s champion.

Ishtar Azzawi, 34, who last week won a gold medal at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship 2019, told The National that recruiting female coaches to train Iraqi women was the first step, while the country's government needed to do more to encourage more women to take up the sport.

“The thing that we lack in Iraq is female coaches. If Iraq invests in one female coach, let’s say from Brazil, then they would have a very strong national women’s jiu-jitsu team,” she said.

Sport in the war-torn country has deteriorated since the US-led invasion of 2003 along with the rise of sectarian violence and lack of good governance.

These factors, along with rising conservativism in some parts of societies, have fragmented the sporting culture for women. They face huge barriers to compete in sport, especially jiu-jitsu, a martial art for men and women but largely reserved for men in a region with strict traditions regarding female and mixed participation.

“They [women] don’t have the capabilities and resources [in Iraq]. It’s difficult for women to go and train in mixed classes, it’s such a close-contact sport,” Azzawi said.

Barriers are there to be broken, though. Azzawi is a trailblazer for Iraqi jiu-jitsu fighters and proof that Iraqis can compete on the biggest stage. She won the blue belt 70+kgs final at the World Pro last week, competing under Commando Group, despite battling health issues leading up to the tournament.

“During the last five seconds of my last fight I had a flash back of everything that I went through to get to where I am,” she said as tears of joy rolled down her face.

Azzawi said that overcoming the mental challenges of such a physically-demanding sport made her gold medal success even more satisfying.

“This is why I got so emotional at the end of the match, because I realised that it’s not about the physical, it’s merely a mental barrier,” she said. “I broke massive mental barriers for myself by winning this championship."

Ishtar Azzawi, centre, says she has received great support from both Iraqi men and women since winning gold in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Ishtar Azzawi

Azzawi spends her days working in real estate investment but by night is almost always at the gym perfecting her skills under the watchful eye of Commando Group trainer Thiago Barreto Marques.

“Ishtar has reached her goal in getting this medal and winning this competition by working hard every day," said her coach. "Her accomplishments and dedication to the game will inspire many women to become champions.

"It is great to work with someone like Ishtar, who likes to train and wants to become a champion. She’s a tough girl who has a strong mind and a great personality.”

Azzawi said she has received great support from both Iraqi men and women since winning her gold medal at the World Pro, widely regarded as the biggest tournament in jiu-jitsu.

“The new Iraqi generation is so different, they want to work together, be together. We must move forward, leaving behind a legacy,” she said. “We need to do this for the future."

Azzawi says she plans to return to Baghdad later this year to host jiu-jitsu seminars and hopes her success will inspire others.

“My main goal is for Iraqi women back home who say that only western women should get involved in sport as we are not allowed to do that, to tell them that there is no excuse.

“Every Iraqi woman out there has the capabilities, whether it be to become an athlete or a writer, they should carry out their ambitions and to become a pioneer in their field,” she added.