Sport360 sat down with Egyptian author and digital marketer Lara Fawzy and her MMA coach Jason Woodham to get some insight into the issue and the future of the sport in the region.
The lines between genders have been blurring rapidly and the world of sports is a testament to that as women involvement continues to grow exponentially over the last couple of years.
With both FIFA and FIBA overturning their ban on head gears, many sports have eased up restrictions to further pave way for more females participation, regardless of their culture and faith.
Despite the rising acceptance of female athletes, there is a case of taking one step forward and two steps back as cultural barriers and blatant sexual objectification continue to stigmatise women and hinder their involvement in certain sports, particularly contact or combat sports like mixed martial arts (MMA).
Even though MMA has produced some notable female fighters, the media is often guilty of sexualising them or using provocative content to increase viewership that downplays the achievements and talents of these athletes.
A 2013 headline in FOX Sports about Ronda Rousey epitomized the problem surrounding the portrayal of women in MMA and further underlined the implication that female fighters are admired for more than just their athleticism.
The Middle Eastern perception of martial arts is still heavily rooted in traditional views of masculinity, so women who participate in the sport are thought to be at risk of compromising their femininity.
Egyptian author, digital marketer, and certified personal trainer Lara Fawzy started dabbling in Muay Thai two years ago and embraced the sport for bringing about a positive change in her overall health and well-being.
Considering the numerous benefits of the sport, Fawzy decided to become an advocate for females who wish to take part in the sport and break the stereotypes that are associated with it.
“There are a lot of perceptions about Muay Thai that it is some sort of an aggressive or angry sport, and of course a lot of people tend to think that it is only appropriate for men and women who practice it are not feminine. It’s just a complete lack of knowledge about the sport and its benefits,” she said.
When asked how had Muay Thai changed her as a woman, Lara told Sport360 that practicing the martial art had made her more confident and fit, but as an MMA fan was not very pleased with the way the women were depicted.
“I disagree that women in martial arts should be sexualised. Martial arts sports are empowering, and as a marketer I believe this may be done to appeal to the opposite sex, however, this is not something women need or would like to see. Training any form of martial arts sports is a great way to keep fit, to be strong, to increase discipline and to learn self-defence. There are many benefits, which I think should be emphasised,” she explained.
Fawzy’s Muay Thai/kickboxing coach, Jason Woodham, feels like the stigma is more of a regional issue rather than a global one and has noticed a significant rise in the number of girls joining his classes.
“It does depend on the region, compared to Europe the Middle East still has the stigma. For example, in Saudi Arabia women have just been granted the right to drive, and so maybe there is a bit of stigma if they do a combat sport,” he said.
“Every year there is a 5-10 per cent increase in the number of girls joining my class. I believe that the increase is because of the UFC has created stars. There’s Valentina Shevchenko, Rose Namajunas ‘Thug Rose’, who’s just won the strawweight title, Joanna Jedrzejczyk from Poland, Cris Cyborg, Ronda Rousey – the main ones, so it’s massive now!”
Both Fawzy and Woodham are optimistic that a change in attitude towards combat sport is in the pipeline, but it is vital to first acknowledge and have a conversation about it to pave the way for change.