When Nastassia Kaddour first took to training at a local gym in Al-Ain in the United Arab Emirates in 2015, the Algerian-born Muslim was met with resistance and blatant misogyny.

“Being a covered woman wearing the scarf and working out in a mixed gym in a city which was quite conservative, I was looked down on so much. People would tell me to remove my scarf,” said the 27-year-old. “Being a covered woman, in my opinion, is a choice that I'm proud of. It never stopped me from doing whatever I wanted.”

Kaddour is part of a wave of female CrossFit athlete from traditionally based countries who are redefining the notion of what it means to be both feminine and strong. This includes Landy Eng from Singapore, Amira Ayob from Malaysia, Kristin Lim from the Philippines, Mishak Murad from Pakistan and Shahad Budebs from the United Arab Emirates – all of whom made their debut at the 2019 CrossFit Games under the sport’s new country qualification rules.

Kaddour, who was born in Algeria but moved to the UAE when she was young with her family because of turmoil back home, said acceptance when it comes to women hitting the weights alongside the opposite sex in places like the UAE has come a long way in the past five years.

Nastassia Kaddour in Kuwait. Photo: White Kahraba

“Today, thanks to social media and social media influencers working out among men, it has stopped it being such a stigma, and it's now looked up to. Now people go like, even with the scarf look how much she achieved. I won’t deny that I still receive some hate on Instagram but the amount of support I get outweighs it enormously.”

Kaddour said an injury gave her some much-needed perspective of what to take seriously in life. In February 2019, on Valentine’s Day, she fell hard on her back while doing a swinging pull up. Kaddour, as a trained physiotherapist, knew something was wrong right away.

“I felt as if my pelvis was out of place and I felt electric shocks going down my left leg with every step I took, it was scary. I went to the hospital, crying from the pain, barely being able to walk. They did all the necessary procedures and turns out I had three lumbar fractures.”

It would be eight weeks of rest at home, as Kaddour remembers screaming in agony while trying to get out of bed. The worst part was she had signed up for the CrossFit Open, hoping to become the first female to represent Algeria at the 2019 CrossFit Games (that honour would go to Nadia Ouyahia), and Kaddour found herself watching other athletes make monumental trips to Madison, Wisconsin from all over the world and various ethnic and religious backgrounds.

“I had to let everything go,” said Kaddour, who trains in Al Gurm CrossFit in Abu Dhabi. “The training that used to give me so much joy, the community, the society. I was bound to my bed watching all those people compete and qualify while I couldn't take two steps without being in pain. My heart was broken, if I might say envious also. The injury took me to such a dark place mentally. I used to question and wonder why was I so unlucky.”

Kaddour said injuring her back forced her to go back to the drawing board mentally and rebuild herself. Photo: Handout

Kaddour didn’t stay down, starting “from zero” along the road of rehabilitation, scaling back all her workouts and inching her way back into physical shape. Setbacks didn’t stop either as she remembers breaking down into tears while trying to qualify for a CrossFit competition in Istanbul, Turkey, but by last autumn when the 2020 CrossFit Open rolled around in October, she was feeling healthy both in body and spirit.

“Now I look back to those days and realise how we become so self-centered when we experience negative things in our life. We think that life is not fair only to us but when you open your eyes and see the people around you, everyone is fighting a battle no one knows of. Now I know that God put me through all that just to get back mentally and physically stronger. No more comparing. No more losing focus. No more complaining. You want to win, you better work hard for it cause nothing in this life comes easy.”

Kaddour was able to use her newfound resolve to beat Ouyahia and Soumia Maksoud, with whom Kaddour had a neck-and-neck battle with through the five Open workouts. Kaddour finished first in four, while Maksoud took second four times. Now Kaddour has a chance to further help move the sport along in countries where women are smashing stigmas of what it means to be active, independent females.

Kaddour said she hopes to inspire other women to take up CrossFit by competing at the games this year. Photo: Handout

She said this is especially prevalent in Algeria, where Human Rights Watch reports that the country’s Family Code still heavily discriminates against women by such things as requiring them to apply to the courts for a divorce, where men have unilateral rights to divorce without any explanation. There is still a law on the books (Article 326 of the penal code) which allows a person who abducts a minor to escape prosecution if he marries his victim.

Kaddour said competing at the CrossFit Games as a proud Muslim woman will send a message to her homeland, and hopefully women all over the world in conservative countries who are hesitant to head to a gym for fear of repercussions and backlash.

“In Algeria, it's not very often for you to find women who actually exercise. The views there are that house work is the necessary exercise you need. That lifting weights is just for men and it'll make you look ‘manly’. So I'm hoping by going to the games it will motivate more women to work out, lift heavy and still look feminine.”

Kaddour, who was born in Algeria, said women can be strong and feminine. Photo: White Kahraba

Now over injury and fighting stigma, Kaddour said there isn’t much that gives her pause any more.

“I was able to survive the pain of broken bones, so what’s a few negative comments on Instagram? It’s honestly a reason for me to push even harder now.”