Bessan Al Khairye, who started teaching karate to girls at the age of 21 with five students. Image Credit: Wajiha Al Abyad, Specail to Gulf News

Gaza: A young woman has broken stereotypes by becoming the first female Karate captain in Gaza. Bessan Al Khairye, 23, began learning the Japanese martial arts form at a very young age.

Her uncle was a karate enthusiast and trained Al Khairye, along with her sisters and cousins. She went on to obtain her Dan Black Belt in 2008, at the age of 13.

Female Karate Captain Bessan Al Khairye Wajiha Al Abyad, Gulfnews

“Sometimes my sisters didn’t come to class and I would be the only girl. Some of the other boys refused to play with me, saying ‘we don’t play with girls’,” she told Gulf News.

“However, with time I proved how strong I was and it got to the point where the boys were afraid of me,” she said. “One time before a sparring match, the boy whispered to me: Bessan, don’t be tough on me, please.”

The art of empowering

Karate really shaped Al Khairye’s personality making her more assertive and confident. “I used to slump my shoulders and look at the ground whenever a man was near. I was so shy and intimidated if any guy got close to me. I was always blushing and sweating,” she says.

But now, Al Khairye carries herself with confidence and strength and says she is not afraid to say ‘no’ to someone. “At first I was shy to practice in front of men but now I can do so in front of anyone. There is no room for shyness or fear."

At 21, she started teaching classes for girls. She started with only five students and now has 20 girls in her class. Many of her students sign up initially with the idea of losing weight, but stick with Karate after seeing themselves transform physically and emotionally.

Girls at the Karate teaching class. Image Credit: Gulf News

She says she wants to dispel the conception that a strong woman cannot be feminine.

She is particularly proud of one of her students, Shymaa, 22. “She was so physically frail when she started but now she can lift heavy things like water gallons,” she says.

While her father does not mind his daughter learning Karate, he does not accept her to train in the presence of men.

Lubna Shaheen, a 14-year-old girl expressed her interest specifically in Karate as it is an unusual sport and new. While other girls loved the idea of learning how to defend themselves.

Al Khairye was placed second in the Gaza tournament and third in the Palestine Championship. She credits her teachers for encouraging her to pursue her passion, despite societal views frowning on girls practicing such a sport.

Bessan Al Khairyewas placed second in the Gaza tournament Image Credit: Gulf News

She is currently studying psychology at the Islamic University in Gaza. Al Khairye dreams to continue teaching Karate and spread the sport among girls.

With the current blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip by the Israeli occupation regime, plans for her future seem limited to local contests; she is unable to even consider participating in international competitions. As there is a growing Karate trend, she strongly believes it will be more acceptable, even necessary, for girls to defend themselves in the coming few years.

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“I can’t even attend the Palestine Tournament if it is held in the West-Bank; permissions for us Karate players to enter the West Bank or travel through Erez crossing have been refused a few times before. It is easier if the competition is in Gaza and that’s what happens every time,” Al Khairye said.