By Huda Majeed Salih and Haider Kadhim
DIWANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - The toughest fight that Iraqi freestyle wrestler Alia Hussein ever faced was convincing her family that women should be allowed to grapple.
The 26-year-old student was a keen cyclist and basketball player but when she told her family last year that she wanted to try her hand at the physical world of wrestling she was met with abuse.
"I was humiliated and even beaten by my family, but I defied them all," Hussein told Reuters.
"I feel that I can express myself through this sport. I wanted to prove to society that wrestling is not confined to men only and that Iraqi women can be wrestlers and can win and fight."
On the blue mats of the al-Rafideen Club in the conservative city of Diwaniya, some 180 km (110 miles) south of Baghdad, Hussein trains three times a week with 30 other female wrestlers, some still wearing headscarves. When a big competition comes up, they train every day.
In September, Hussein won a silver medal in the 75 kg (165 lb) freestyle category at a regional event in Lebanon and gold at a local tournament in Baghdad.
"I faced opposition from my family at the beginning, but after my participation in Baghdad and Beirut tournaments they started to encourage me, thanks God," Hussein said.
This is the second attempt by the Iraqi Wrestling Federation (IWF) to grow women's wrestling, this time prompted by the threat of a ban by the sport's global body if they didn't.
The first ended when the club in Diwaniya was disbanded in 2012 after complaints from the local community that the sport was in defiance of local traditions and culture.
The IWF has managed to recruit 70 female wrestlers who train at 15 clubs across the country, a spokesman for the body said. Each is entitled to a payment of 100,000 Iraqi dinars ($84) a month, but the money has stopped for the last three months as the IWF invests in a new wrestling hall in Baghdad.
Despite the financial offer, recruitment is tough.
Nihaya Dhaher Hussein, a 50-year-old school teacher, is the driving force behind the burgeoning team in Diwaniya which started in 2016.
She drives the squad to practice, trains them and undertakes the dangerous task of convincing families to let their daughters, sisters or wives wrestle.
"A woman wrestling is alien to our conservative tribal society," she said. "The idea is hard to accept. It was so difficult to attract girls and convince their families.
"I was threatened myself by a brother of a player who verbally abused me and tried to hit me. It is so difficult to bring them to training and return them to their houses."
(Writing by Patrick Johnston in LONDON; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)