By day, Iraqi native Ishtar Azzawi is a project manager at the UAE-based investment company, KBBO Group.
By night, the 35-year-old is a jiu-jitsu champion.
For about the past six years, she has tackled her problems in life on, and off, the mat.
The competitive fighter, who’s won gold medals in multiple international events, began her sporting journey in an unlikely way.
While living in the UK during her twenties, Azzawi became a victim of physical violence, which left her feeling defenceless and frightened.
As a result, she retreated from Europe to the UAE in 2012, where she says she shut out the world.
“I didn’t leave my house, for like two years," she says. "I would just go to the gym, or to work, and I would go home. I was in a place where everything scared me.”
Seeking empowerment, Azzawi explored different contact sports and chose to pursue with the grapples and joint locks of the Brazilian combat sport, jiu-jitsu.
She found it to be effective in taking down larger competitors, the sport also helped her rebuild her self-esteem.
“Jiu-jitsu saved my life,” says Azzawi, remembering the person she was before. “Coming from a place where I had zero confidence, zero belief in myself, I’m now in a place where I’m super confident and I feel that I don’t have fear of the things I used to fear.”
In addition to conquering her fears, the athlete has risen through the ranks to become an international fighting champion, collecting gold medals from Europe to Asia.
However, the battle scars of Azzawi's past still haunt her, and as a result of the head injuries she sustained in Europe, she would endure up to four epileptic seizures a day.
CHAMPIONING HER CAUSE
Ishtar’s goal is to be the black belt world champion of her sport, while also encouraging other Iraqis to excel through the platform Iqpro-x which scouts for national athletes.
The competitive athlete says she is currently the only woman on Iraq’s national team, and her goal is to one day have an all-female jiu-jitsu team from her homeland.
“A war-torn country with great athletes, I think that’s definitely a dream and a goal.” she adds.
TAG TEAMING ATHLETES
A chance encounter at a social event in Dubai, brought Azzawi and, her now loyal friend, Shaikha Al Qassemi, together.
As Azzawi was being criticized by a stranger for her muscular female form, leaping to her defense was UAE competitive cross fit athlete Shaikha Al Qassemi.
The royal, from the emirate of Sharjah, is only too familiar with the disapproving comments that female athletes often receive in the region. This inspired her to open an all-women’s cross-fit gym in 2017.
She trains six days a week to maximise her overall fitness and optimize her speed, stamina, strength, and mental agility.
STRENGTH & SACRIFICE
Al Qassemi argues that many people do not understand the dedication it takes to participate in competitive sports.
“They think that being an athlete is not really serious. They tell me, 'Oh you’re just exercising'”, she says. “It’s consistent training, consistent eating and consistent performance.”
Waking at dawn each day, Al Qassemi works through her routine of weightlifting and training exercises, in between fueling up on around 2200 calories. Until recently, she did all this in addition to running her business.
“Cross-fit is such a difficult sport to get good at, I need to focus so much on having my own food, my own space, my own environment,” says Al Qassemi of the sacrifices needed to succeed.
Her "own environment", has recently turned out to be Spain, where she relocated to last year.
And while the overseas move has meant leaving friends, family and her business behind, Al Qassemi is hopeful that it will edge her one step closer to achieving her goal of becoming a world class athlete.
SEEN ON SOCIAL MEDIA: REGIONAL STRENGTH
Hagar from Egypt showed off her Muay Thai jabs and ducking skills on her social media account.
And Aysha from Bahrain was delighted to meet jujitsu world champion Bruno Malfacine in her country.