How karate is helping Nigerian women

Published : October 29, 2021 16:54 IST

Hajiya Zainab Saleh: Karate teaches respect and self-confidence. Photo: Segun Aderinto/Supashegs Photos

Amid domestic violence and kidnapping, Zainab Saleh is encouraging Nigerian women and girls to fight for themselves.

Every October for the last eight years, young women have gathered in Lagos for the Zainab Saleh International Female Open Karate Championship. It's the only time that karatekas, practitioners of the sport, get to compete at a women-only tournament. They are mostly drawn from teams across Nigeria's 36 states, while neighboring Benin also sent a big delegation. There were 207 athletes who registered to participate this year, eager to show their progress after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the tournament in 2020.

"I noticed that there was always a lot of interest in the male category at tournaments because the technical ability of the men was much better," said Saleh. "I felt that it was important to build the technical abilities of the women. A man may be stronger but a woman can be more technically sound." And she is happy that the level of competition is rising every year, with categories ranging from under-12s to seniors.

Martial arts amid social upheaval

Saleh hails from the town of Monguno, in northeast Borno State, which has seen a lot of fighting between Nigerian troops and the jihadi Boko Haram group. Eighteen soldiers and many other civilians were killed in September, after an attack on the town that hosts a United Nations base. The ongoing insurgency has left families displaced. Bandits operate in the country's northwest where mass kidnapping and ransom payments are now quite common, since the 2014 kidnapping of girls at a school in Chibok. According to Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, 2,371 people were kidnapped in the first half of 2021 across Nigeria.

"I worry for our girls, I worry for our women, I worry for everybody because it is just so sad what the country has become today," said Saleh, who supports back-to-school programs for displaced children in the region through her foundation. "I believe that the development of grassroots sports is one way to keep children engaged. And karate can help children learn important values early in life."

Inspired by Bruce Lee

Hajiya, as everyone calls her, holds a fourth-degree Dan black belt. She started practicing karate after watching Bruce Lee films when her father was a diplomat in Mexico in the 1970s. "I told my father, I want to practice karate like Bruce Lee. So, he enrolled my brother and I in a school. He would always take us to our training. When he couldn't, my mom would take us," Saleh told DW. She learned the core karate values of respect, focus and non-violence. Through her foundation and the support of family and friends, she runs the championship that has become a major highlight of the karate calendar in Nigeria.

The athletes participate in kata (a choreography of technical form) and kumite (sparring to score points against opponents). During the tournament, which took place from October 21 to 24, the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos came alive with the traditional Osu greeting, a word used as a sign of respect between competitors as women clad in their white karate gi uniforms begin to practice the ancient Japanese martial arts.

Godfirst Sampson, a 19-year-old 1st Dan black belt, took part in her fourth championship this year but lost in the 55-kilogram weight class final to her opponent from Benin, Fridole Tobossou. "Every single year Hajiya makes it happen and she doesn't disappoint us. I am grateful that she is a tough woman and has not allowed anything to stop her vision for women's karate," said Sampson.

Giving girls an opportunity to compete

The championship offers women an opportunity to be competitive in a country where conservative values mean girls who play sport are often frowned upon. But Saleh has seen many change their minds after attending her tournaments. "When people come and see what women are capable of doing, they say I want to learn that sport," she said.

Her work in women's sport is commendable, said Tega Onojaife, founder of the Lagos-based advocacy group Ladies In Sport International. "When we ask for gender equality in sports, we are asking for deliberate and intentional action to be taken to ensure women and girls get equal opportunity to participate in sports. Hajiya Zainab has consistently put in the investment, year after year to make this happen. It is rare and it is intentionally giving girls the opportunity to participate in sports," she told DW.

Bigger picture

Karate was a sport at the Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020, but it will not return at the next Summer Games in Paris in 2024. Saleh, who is a member of many organizations including the Union of African Karate Federations, hopes the sport will be back on the Olympic roster by 2028. Her aim is that Nigerian karatekas will get better in order to participate on the international stage despite the financial challenges they face. "How do you get better if you cannot get your athletes to international competitions? We can't rate our progress against other countries if we cannot get funding to attend those championships. We need sponsors to take an interest in karate," said Saleh.

But she remains encouraged by the passion of the young women who come to her championship, and she hopes to start another championship in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, for both men and women. "The fact that the technical standard of our female athletes is getting better encourages me," she said. "I caught some moments when some little girls were jumping for joy after winning gold medals. It makes me want to continue. And I wish I can do more for them."