ARBIL, IRAQ: When Iraq’s female cycling team snatched bronze and silver medals at a landmark pan-Arab race, it was thanks to athletes from the autonomous Kurdish region.
The country’s toughest female competitors, its best-equipped facilities and most experienced coaches are not in the capital Baghdad, but in the Kurdish-majority northern region.
And the three medals won by the Iraqi female cyclists in September at the tournament in Algeria were seen as proof of this sporting prowess in a region that has governed itself since 1991.
The team earned a bronze in the relay race, where three of its four cyclists were Kurdish, and also scooped a bronze and a silver in individual events.
The silver-winning athlete, Mazda Rafiq, hails from the Kurdish region’s second city, Sulaimaniyah.
“Since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to represent Iraq in a cycling race, and today I was able to do that,” said the 20-year-old.
Rafiq, who trains in the region’s capital, Arbil, credits her victory to “the support of society and our parents”.
Decades ago, all of Iraq’s 18 provinces had thriving female athletic scenes, with active clubs in different sports.
But the 1980s saw a string of violent conflicts begin, followed by an international embargo that brought development projects to a screeching halt and the rise of militias.
Those factors, combined with growing conservatism in parts of Iraqi society, all chipped away at sports culture for women.
However in the north, relatively insulated from these trends, Kurdish women have enjoyed an athletic awakening – one that Iraq’s clubs and national teams are making use of now.
A female cycling team in the southern conservative city of Diwaniyah regularly poaches two Kurdish athletes from Sulaimaniyah – more than 500 kilometres to the north – for national and regional competitions.
“They are better, and the club knows they’ll help them get a better score,” said Sajed Salim, of Iraq’s Cycling Federation.
One reason for the success of Kurdish female athletes may be the relatively lax social norms in the autonomous region, said Iraq volleyball champion and club coach Randy Metti.
“Kurdistan is more open to women’s sports than the provinces of the south,” he said, where traditions and tribal customs restrict how much women and girls can do outside the home.
Metti coaches the Akad Ainkawa women’s volleyball team in Arbil three times per week, all year long.
Player Mirna Najeeb brings her seven-month-old daughter to every training session.
“I was advised not to exercise six months after giving birth but I told the whole world that I would start again,” she said.
Najeeb and fellow Akad players are regularly called up to Iraq’s national team to compete internationally.
“A player has everything here – modern training facilities, interested clubs, and great coaches,” she told AFP.
The clubs also enjoy widespread public support and are popular meeting places.
“The fact that they have restaurants and recreational spaces encourages families to come support the female athletes,” said Khaled Bashir, a member of Iraq’s Volleyball Federation.
That popularity often translates into material support for local clubs, allowing them to pursue more training and keep improving.
Elsewhere in Iraq, teams rely on funds from the ministry of youth and sports, which barely cover basic expenses.
“There are talented athletes everywhere, but they do not emerge in the other provinces because the structures are not the same as those in Kurdistan,” said Bashir. The numbers speak for themselves.
This year’s national volleyball championship brought together “11 female Kurdish teams against four other female teams from the rest of Iraq – all of them from Baghdad,” he said.
Women’s basketball, too, has become a hit sport in Iraq thanks to Kurdish athletes – including all-girl teams in Dohuk, Halabja and Arbil.
The relative calm enjoyed by the region has contributed to their advancement, said the head of Iraq’s Basketball Federation, Hussein al-Omeidi.
“That stability in the region’s towns when it comes to daily life and to security is vital to the athletic excellence of our female teams,” Omeidi told AFP.
Out of Iraq’s seven female basketball clubs, three of them are from the Kurdish region – a source of pride for female basketball federation member Wassen Hanoun.
“It’s an important proportion that really shows how much female Kurdish sports dominate,” she said.