I, as most people did, grew up reading bedtime stories of princesses in far away lands. They’d be rescued by equally-far away handsome princes and live happily ever after in a life distant and detached from any I would ever lead. The generation of children growing up now, however, can read different stories, featuring a lot fewer non-consensual kisses. This is thanks in part to books like Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which features stories of 100 powerful women. One featured woman is Amna Al Haddad, journalist-turned-weightlifter and sports pioneer from the UAE.
Al Haddad, who only started working out at age 19, now holds 6 gold and 3 silver medals from International Weightlifting Federation-sanctioned events. She was the first Arab woman to compete in the Reebok CrossFit Asia Regionals in Seoul, South Korea in 2012, and the first competitive weightlifter from the Gulf to do so in a hijab in 2013. Her points in the Asian Olympics qualifier in Uzbekistan helped push the UAE national team to Rio in 2016, though her back injury meant she could not compete herself. Her collaboration with Nike in 2016 gave us the now famous Nike Pro Hijab. When I asked her which of these achievements she is proudest of, she said none.
...the most powerful aspect of my story is not the hijab. It’s not being from the Middle East. It’s not being a woman.
Al Haddad was a superstar athlete, and in her brief career went from victory to another in quick succession. But to simply list her achievements is to miss her story of how she went from crippling depression to world medals. It’s her emotional journey, perhaps not as sexy as her crowning glories, that she counts as what made her who she is today.
Hers is not the story of athletes groomed from birth. She did not spend her childhood in gyms and competitions under the thumb of high-strung coaches. Instead, her teenage years were defined by her struggles with her own mental health. By 19, she had experienced years of depression that left her over-sleeping, over-eating, and dealing with suicidal tendencies. The anti-depressants she was on left her lethargic, “feeling like a vegetable,” as she describes it. Hopeless, heavy, and ashamed, it wasn’t until she realised she needed to let go of that self-hatred that things changed. And her decision was a profoundly simple act—she went for a walk.
“I never in my life thought that a walk—a simple walk—could actually change my life. But that’s exactly what happened, because I took action, I took charge. Not just deciding, but physically putting myself through the motion of wanting to change. And I honestly think that is the most powerful aspect of my story. It’s not the hijab. It’s not being from the Middle East. It’s not being a woman.”
I did a very masculine sport. But actually, I became a lot more feminine as a result of it.
From that one physical act, her journey towards weightlifting was history. Al Haddad is not unaware of how a patriarchal society reacts to a woman in a masculine sport like weightlifting—with shock, ridicule, and entitled misogyny that questions her womanhood on every level. She simply chooses to dismiss it. “I did a very masculine sport,” Al Haddad concedes. “But actually, I became a lot more feminine as a result of the sport.” At every turn, Al Haddad reclaims and transforms all that is limiting and oppressive into a cycle of empowerment. Her depression becomes a spring board from which to reclaim her body, her choice of sport becomes an avenue to express her own femininity.
She explains her experience of what every woman raised in Arab society knows all too well—“[you] are expected to be in a certain way, behave in a certain way, speak in a certain way. And if you take a different route, you are seen as a black sheep—a rebel—even though that is not your intention.” Her choice of sport is far removed from traditional expectations of Arab femininity—small, docile, and demure. In a social context hell-bent on defining women in terms palatable to the collective, to choose to focus instead on her own body, her own needs and desires, is a profoundly personal act of resistance.
Weightlifting’s slowest event, the clean-and-jerk, takes only six seconds to perform. An athlete trains for years to perform a feat of superhuman strength in less time than it takes the average misogynist to point out something wrong with it.
After deciding she needed to treat her body better, Al Haddad joined CrossFit and began going to events. Though she remembers being the only hijabi, in fact the only Arab, woman in the UAE events curated by and for the expat community, her one focus was on doing and feeling better. One thing led to another, and she soon found herself competing in the 2012 Asia Regionals, the only Arab woman at the time. In 2013, she made history as the first female weightlifter from the Gulf to compete in the hijab.
Explaining how she decided to quit both CrossFit and her full-time job, she takes me through the physical and emotional experience of weightlifting, how it became a kind of meditation for her. “The weight is on the ground and then it’s over your head,” she explains. “There’s a split second that’s just blank. You don’t hear anything, you don’t see anything, you don’t feel anything.” In that moment, Al Haddad reflects, she is invincible.
The weight is on the ground and then it’s over your head. There’s a split second that’s just blank. You don’t hear anything, you don’t see anything, you don’t feel anything.
It is no easy task to heal your own sense of self-worth, but it comes just a little easier when you can lift a gigantic weighed metal bar over your head. It gave her a space to redirect the goliath of negative energy inside her into something positive and powerful. It was also the speed of the sport. Weightlifting’s slowest event, the clean-and-jerk, takes only six seconds to perform. An athlete trains for years to perform a feat of superhuman strength in less time than it takes the average misogynist to point out something wrong with it.
Herself an accomplished mental health advocate (she received the Rosalyn Carter Journalism Fellowship for Mental Illness in 2016), Al Haddad does not fall into the trap of framing mental health in absolute terms. At first glance, it is easy to frame her story as one of instantaneous healing: she went for a walk once, joined a fitness class, and the years of depression and self-loathing dissipated into thin air. But, as anyone who has undertaken the long, arduous ordeal of dealing with mental illness will tell you, healing is never linear.
It was never about breaking barriers for Arab Muslim women in hijabs. But the media started to focus on that. So I did too. I was younger, and I felt responsible for representing a whole community.
“We think that by taking certain steps to heal ourselves, we will immediately feel better, and we will heal ourselves for the rest of our lives. But in reality, it’s no different than brushing your teeth. You do it every day. It takes time and effort. And you do have relapses sometimes. Sometimes you just feel like you’re back at square one. And it’s okay to relapse. It’s okay to feel that way.”
Our tendency to make heroes of our idols is a peculiar and, once we look into it, dangerous aspect of our culture. We deify the people we look up to, and in the process point to them as something other than ourselves. Al Haddad, in the honesty with which she chooses to express her experience, deprives us of that urge. “We think that by taking certain steps to heal ourselves, we will immediately feel better, and we’re healed for the rest of our lives.” She does not shy away from recounting the several relapses in the years leading up to the Olympic qualifiers, some of which were due to the over-training competitive athletes put their bodies and minds through.
In 2015, living alone in the US, pressured on all fronts—financial, emotional, and physical—Al Haddad broke down in a way she hadn’t in years. It was then she decided to go back on the decision she had made at 19, and go back on anti-depressants. It was also then that she found out that the back pain her coaches had been telling her to push through was a disc injury. This was the injury that would eventually lead to Al Haddad’s retirement, but she wouldn’t go down without a fight just yet. Training in the US, recovering from a relapse that saw her make the decision to go back on anti-depressants, and dealing with a disc injury, this was the moment Al Haddad was invited to join the UAE national team gearing up for the Olympics. She remembers the exact moment, and how close she was to giving up.
It wasn’t about trying to defy odds, or about trying to be a rebel. It was nothing like that. It was just about healing myself.
“I thought to myself, ‘Amna, listen, you have given up so much. You’ve left your home, your country, and your family to pursue this one goal. You quit your job to pursue this one goal. This is not the time to give up. It’s the time to fight. Give it this one last shot. You never, ever, ever want to find yourself asking what if?’”
She crowdfunded her way back to the UAE, through treatment, and onto the qualifiers. Though careful to train smart through the gruelling period leading up to the competition, Al Haddad could not join her teammates in Rio. Disappointment was inevitable, but – again – she reminded herself of the goal. “It wasn’t about trying to defy odds, or about trying to be a rebel. It was nothing like that. It was just about healing myself.”
This was the injury that would eventually lead to Al Haddad’s retirement at the age of 27.
“Remember the goal,” she told herself at the time. “And it was never about the numbers, never about the Olympics itself.” What had started out for her as a journey of healing continued to be so. And it was only through that healing that she became the Amna Al Haddad we see in the news, in beautifully shot short films, and illustrated in a bedtime storybook for rebel girls.
But that’s not how her story is often told. By and large, she is known for her hyphenated identity of hijabi-athlete. Her honesty and willingness to speak about her journey with mental health often comes second, if at all, to her identity as hijabi, as woman, as Arab. She reflects that this was not something she understood when the labels were first assigned to her.
“I was just doing what felt right for me. I wanted to pursue a sport that made me feel good. It was never about breaking barriers for Arab Muslim women in hijabs. But the media started to focus on that. So I did too. I was younger, and I felt responsible for representing a whole community.”
In the age of hyphenated identities, Al Haddad expresses her discomfort with what she realises in retrospect was reductionist and unfair. The spotlight on hijabi athletes – blown out of proportion as it is now – is not always an empowering thing, according to her. “The media’s not doing us any favours by focusing on it,” she says. In choosing to either victimise or sanctify athletes who compete in hijabs, the culture still plays into a narrative of oppression. To focus on what women are wearing, in any sense, is to take away from that person’s talent and capabilities.
To put things in perspective, the sport itself, or whatever activity you do, does not recognise where you come from, who you are, your skin colour, what you wear. It only recognises if you can perform or not
“To put things in perspective, the sport itself, or whatever activity you do, does not recognise where you come from, who you are, your skin colour, what you wear. It only recognises if you can perform or not. So I’m looking forward to the day when we focus on that and their ability.”
The labelling that happens in sports culture is the same that occurs in society, Al Haddad thinks. And it affects identities, mental health, and how we think of success. We create labels around things that people do or have, and we turn them into the person’s singular identity. ‘Hijabi’. ‘Arab’. ‘Depressed’. The person becomes the label. If that becomes who they essentially are, it also becomes all they can be. And if that identity is compromised, their sense of self is thrown into disarray. This is why, so often, people struggling with mental health form a kind of relationship with their condition where they don’t know who they are without it. “You are not your mental illness,” Amna has learned. “It is a condition that you have, something you are dealing with. It is not who you are.”
Since her athletic career ended, Al Haddad has been active as a mental health advocate and motivational speaker. As the first UAE national to receive the Rosalyn Carter Journalism Fellowship for Mental Illness, she is taking her journey, its ups and downs and roundabouts, and using it to raise awareness about mental health and its place in society. She made the choices, among others, to pursue an athletic career, to quit and then return to anti-depressants when she was ready, to compete in a hijab. Now, she seeks to inspire people, particularly women, to make their own choices of healing. In a society that makes no space for us to express, experiment, and heal, we must create it ourselves.
Images used courtesy of Marina Dzhumaeva, Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, Rooda Al Neama, and Tiffany Tong.