From Fencing Champion to Gender-Equality Activist: Kuwait’s Balsam Al-Ayoub
Balsam was raised in a household of sport enthusiasts. Because both of her parents were athletes—her father was a national football player and swimmer and her mother played gymnastics and basketball—Balsam was encouraged at the young age of six or seven to be active. She gravitated towards individual games, such as riding and surfing, developing important character traits in the process: a love of independence, discipline, determination, and analytical thinking. She joined Nadi al-Fatat (then Kuwait’s only sports club for females) in 1995, at the age of 16, and left it in 2004 to become a professional fencer. There are now two more athletic clubs for women: al-Oyoon Sport Club, and Salwa al-Sabah Sport Club. After leaving the government-sponsored club and signing with the private sector for endorsements, Balsam spent five years participating in an average of ten to twelve competitions annually across Europe, Asia, and the MENA region. In 2015, twenty years after her introduction to fencing, Balsam established the Sports and Society Committee in Kuwait’s Sport Club, where she trains today.
Sports and Society, which uses the power of athleticism and physical activity to improve society, is just one of the projects spearheaded by Balsam. In November 2015 she convened a panel at Kuwait University centred on the impact of sports on changing society. Balsam, along with four other athletes, spoke about the ways in which they transcended social and personal limitations. The speakers were Kuwait’s Zed al-Refai, the main force behind the Arabian Mountaineering and Alpine Climbing Club; Samer Abu Dagga, the coach and manager of AC Milan Soccer Academy in Kuwait; South Africa’s Richard Bennet, founder of the UK-based charity Bhubesi Pride Foundation, which operates in nine African countries; and Palestine’s Suzanne al-Houby, the first Arab woman to climb Mount Everest. A month later, Balsam organized Be Strong, a sport and cultural awareness programme, which launched a campaign to end violence against women by teaching females how to fight back against assailants. A staggering number of women participated: 382 from 30 different countries, including both disabled and able-bodied women.
Balsam was selected for the Ashoka fellowship in 2009. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide: nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries put their system-changing ideas into practice on a global scale. Balsam was selected from amongst the 50 pre-eminent young personalities in Europe and Arab countries in 2010 and was nominated for the Peace and Sport Award in 2011. Balsam has won countless medals for fencing since 1995 and continues to be recognized for her social, economic, and diplomatic projects. These range from helping university students with a specific expertise to realize social development projects through Youth Lab, an organization designed to bring student ideas to life, to creating conservative sportswear for women and girls.
Less known are Balsam’s herculean effort and sheer will to triumph over obstacles, no doubt a product of her athletic upbringing. After high school, Balsam tried to enroll in the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training to get a degree in physical education, like her mother, and was rejected twice for her poor grades. Balsam always had trouble studying.
Her effort was a marathon, and Balsam was able to graduate in ten years, after having been suspended on six occasions.
The first turning point in Balsam’s life came when she failed an exam in college. The exam question concerned ways in which one can organize an athletic competition. Thinking that she had answered innovatively, Balsam asked her professor to explain her poor grade. Her teacher explained that it was precisely because her answer was novel and not a repetition of the one laid out in the textbook (written by Balsam’s professor) that Balsam deserved to fail. She realized at that point that there were two types of people, those who believed in the inevitability of the status quo and those who are born to challenge it. Balsam flourished amongst the latter. It was then that she took a conscious decision not to copy answers or merely follow orders and fulfil social expectations. “If plan A doesn’t work,” says Balsam, “I know that there are twenty-five other letters in the alphabet, and I’ll try out every one until I get what I want.” After three attempts to get into college, ten grueling years, and six suspensions, her department finally recognized her contributions to society in the field of sport. After graduation, she was honoured amongst a group of distinguished students: Balsam was the only female in the midst of nineteen men.
She learnt the terms “gender equality” and “empowerment” only in 2009, after hearing a brief by the Ashoka staff about the fellowship she had won, but she had spent her whole professional career championing women, both in and out of sport. When she started in Nadi al-Fatat, Balsam was training in a vacuum. There were no real opportunities for growth in fencing in Kuwait.
Another turning point in her career occurred as she was reading a magazine one day and learnt that an international tennis player had been sponsored by a watch company. Up to that point, Balsam had assumed that the term “professional athlete” referred only to footballers who signed with international clubs. It had not occurred to her that companies might endorse other athletes. She gathered and trained a group of sixteen girls and then approached the country’s leading telecommunications company, MTC. Balsam petitioned MTC to sponsor the first national fencing contest in Kuwait.
After the great success of the event, Balsam approached the sports union with the top six fencers and asked to participate in the upcoming world competition, which was to be hosted by the Czech Republic. Balsam and her team trained for three weeks. Their captain purchased professional gear hours before the competition itself, and he flew to Hungary and back in one day. The girls changed national history by becoming the first Kuwaiti female fencers to compete on an international level.
Balsam realized early that the advances she had made in sport influenced the rhetoric of women’s roles and rights in society. Her success as a champion athlete impacted the debate about women’s abilities to become leaders and to overcome their so-called emotional tendencies by learning discipline and focus and by tackling tasks tenaciously, despite the many obstacles that lay in the way. Moreover, her hectic and cosmopolitan schedule challenged tribal views about the natural place of an Arab woman. Balsam, who is happily married and the mother of a young boy—a swimming champion in his own right—has dedicated her life to a cause greater than herself and has managed, through her triumphs, to spend decades empowering women and promoting gender equality, even though she had only recently begun to use these terms herself.
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