Jordanian women climb into the boxing ring

Boxing and martial arts are no longer the sole domain of men as women in the kingdom begin to compete for honours.

AMMAN // A punch, a duck of the head. Another punch and one of the women bent swiftly to avert her sparring partner's attack. In another part of the training room, a boxer pummelled the punching bag, gloves thudding dully at the midsection. The sounds of the sweet science in practice filled the air inside the training hall at Al Hussein's sport city complex where the "pugilistes" undergo four vigorous 90-minute training sessions a week.

For Jordanian women, boxing is no longer a man's realm. "Women have really proved themselves, whether it's lifting weights, Taekwondo, Karate or boxing, which is just like any other sport," said Ayman Nadi, a boxing coach who trains the Jordanian national women's boxing team. "Women can do the same job as men. Boxing is based on skills and speed and women can do it. They play boxing as good as men."

From Algeria and Egypt to Syria and Jordan and even Afghanistan, women are taking up boxing and breaking gender barriers. Their efforts were given a boost last year when International Olympic Committee members voted to include women's boxing for the first time in the 2012 Games in London. As boxing has become a new hit for women, dozens have joined classes in private gyms hoping to shape up and shed extra pounds, but some have gotten hooked and are taking the sport to a higher gear.

"I started kick boxing two years ago to shape up and I fell in love with the energy of the class," said Arifa Bseiso, a 25-year-old boxer. "Boxing started as a fitness routine. It helped let out the anger and frustration, then coach Ayman pushed me to join the championship of Jordan." Last year, Ms Bseiso, a freelance film maker, won a gold medal in Jordan's first ever female boxing championship.

In a society where boxing is not a mainstream sport, women boxers say the attitudes are changing toward females taking up sports traditionally preserved for men. In the past few years, even Jordan's police has created their own team of women boxers. "I have the support of my family and friends. Actually people from all classes have been receiving women boxers very well," Ms Bseiso said. "That boxing is for men is only a cliché. As far as I am concerned nobody said anything negative to me or made fun of women boxers."

But it was only in April this year that the Jordanian National women's boxing team became official. Women had previously been training in several clubs but now they are trained under the umbrella of a national team, Mr Nadi, the coach, said. The team comprises 12 women from the ages of 18 to 30. Last month they competed in the Asian Women's Boxing Championship in Astana, Kazakhstan. Randa Abdulkhaleq, one of the team members, won a bronze medal in the over 81kg, or super heavyweight category, making her the first Arab woman to win a medal at the event.

Though they did not claim the gold, Mr Nadi said he was very proud of his team. "Their participation has boosted our morale and we are hoping to try and participate in the 2012 Olympics," he said. Some argue that a sport like boxing is not attracting enough women due to social constraints that do not accept that females should be in the ring. "Families discourage their daughters from becoming boxers because society does not accept women taking part in such sports. Therefore, not many women are joining," said Sawsan Qaddoumi, a 30-year-old boxer.

"People associate boxing for women with violence. Culturally it is not acceptable yet, but we are aiming to attract a higher number of women?and even women look at other women who box as machos," she added. "Still there have been achievements so far that we are proud of." Regardless of the reasons women are taking up boxing, there are rewards. "It is a fun sport," said Haneen Naouri, 22, a business student and member of Jordan's female boxing team. "My father encouraged me to take up boxing to learn self defence skills and it helped me boost my self confidence," she said.

"When I saw the other girls in the team training, I freaked out and thought they were rather fierce and wondered how I would keep up with them. But then we got along and we became friends. "I like the sport, it makes me think and helps boost my confidence. It's much better than running on the treadmill."