Amna Al Haddad is Raising the Bar

Written by Mikaila Kukurudza  |  Lead & green hoodie photos courtesy of Nike
Weightlifting photos courtesy of Marina Grey

As the first Emirati Hijabi woman to go to the Olympic weightlifting qualifiers, and the only Muslim woman to compete in headdress, Amna Al Haddad has become something she never had: a role model. “When I started my fitness career in the Arab world, I felt that I didn’t really find anyone who inspired me,” says 26-year-old Amna. “I didn’t feel that there were any women doing what I was doing, and that was really difficult for me.”

Now, four years after starting her training in CrossFit and weightlifting, Amna is an inspiration for many women in the Middle East and across the globe, appearing in Nike ads and international media. “Being a strong woman goes beyond being able to physically pick up weights and drop them,” says Amna, who believes that her inner strength has elevated her career just as much as her enormous lifts. After she competed as the first Muslim woman in Asia’s CrossFit Open, a surge of Middle Eastern women pursued the sport too, many of whom Amna checks in with on a regular basis for progress updates.

Growing up in Dubai, Amna wasn’t involved in any after-school organized sports; she actually wasn’t interested in fitness at all (aside from riding her bike), until she turned 19-years-old. But in April 2011, struggling with depression and living an unhealthy lifestyle, Amna began researching different types of fitness online. When she came across one of the three CrossFit gyms in her country at the time, Amna was immediately interested, and just a few months later, she started competing. In March of 2012, Amna was ranked 77th out of 170 women in the CrossFit Open in Asia. She then went on to make history while competing with her team at the Asia Regionals as the first Muslim woman to compete in a hijab.

“How we dress as athletes should never be
an indicator of how talented we are.”

A month later, Amna left her career as a journalist and began training and competing full-time, although she fought for the first two and a half years to find funding to support her level of training. Nevertheless, she continued to break barriers by being the first Hijabi weightlifter to compete in the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio three years in a row.

By December 2015, Amna was chosen to compete with the UAE National team as the first Emirati Hijabi female Olympic weightlifter. With an irritated disc herniation, Amna had concerns about competing in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic qualifiers this past April—as did her doctors, who last November suggested she stop lifting completely. But Amna refused. “I wasn’t willing to hold back anything until I knew I did everything in my power to reach my full ability.” Amna underwent treatment for her injury and began retraining her body to be ready for Olympic training camp in mid-March of this year.

As the first Emirati Hijabi woman to go to the Olympic weightlifting qualifiers, and the only Muslim woman to compete in headdress, Amna Al Haddad has become something she never had: a role model. “When I started my fitness career in the Arab world, I felt that I didn’t really find anyone who inspired me,” says 26-year-old Amna. “I didn’t feel that there were any women doing what I was doing, and that was really difficult for me.”

It’s a sentiment that couldn’t be more accurate, as Amna and female athletes like her are continuing to shatter the stereotypes surrounding Muslim women. This summer, a huge boundary will be broken as fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad will become the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. “How we dress as athletes should never be an indicator of how talented we are,” says Amna about her peer. “It shows that the United States truly accepts diversity and allows inclusion. This is a great case of female empowerment.”

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