In December last year, World Wrestling Entertainment staged its first ever women’s wrestling match in the Middle East. Much was made of the women’s title match between the champion Alexa Bliss and her challenger Sasha Banks that took place in Abu Dhabi. Both women had special ring gear made to cover their normally bared bodies, and fans apparently chanted “This is hope” during the fight.
For Malaysian wrestler Nor “Phoenix” Diana, 18, it was hope.
“They finally showed that women can also wrestle. I felt empowered and proud because as a Muslim pro wrestler I feel like I’ve also been trying to show the world that a Muslim woman can do what other, non-Muslim women can do. I hope that it shows that women, whether Muslim or not, can do whatever we want.”
Banks’ involvement in the match, for which she had a purple and silver full-length leotard (visible in the video above) made, was personally affecting for Diana, who declined to give her real name for this article.
“When I started watching wrestling, I started watching [Banks],” she says. “To see her be one of the first women to have a match in Abu Dhabi from WWE inspired me.”
But for others living in the region, the hype was overblown.
Lana Evanson, 29, is a personal trainer and life coach originally from Toronto, Canada, now living in Dubai. She had a tryout for WWE last year and has been wrestling with Dubai Pro Wrestling since then. She says that locally, the WWE match didn’t make a splash.
“The Western media, and even here in the Middle East, they love to make it seem like it’s a huge deal; oh wow, it’s crazy that this is happening. But it’s really not,” Evanson says.
“One thing we have to remember is that Dubai has tonnes of nationalities, so even though it’s the Middle East, you can’t compare it to places like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where I’m sure [women’s wrestling] is not going to happen. But [in the United Arab Emirates] people are way more open and accepting because they see different nationalities, they see women doing things that maybe they wouldn’t in other Muslim countries or Middle Eastern countries. Here we have bodybuilding and bikini competitions.”
Evanson herself has competed in fitness competitions, but she “wouldn’t do that now.
“It was too much focus on the physical and at the end of the day I’m a Muslim so I need that balance of the spiritual and my passions,” Evanson says. “There have been times when I’ve been too much into my faith and I’ve forgotten all my passions and I wasn't happy. And [times] when I got too much into my passions and forgot about my faith [and] I wasn’t happy. We say alhamdulillah—thank god I found a balance [between] wrestling and my faith.”
Women’s wrestling has been happening in the Middle East before WWE planted their flag; December’s match was just the first time WWE allowed its female wrestlers to compete there. This is in line with their “Women’s Evolution” marketing, which contends that women’s wrestling is just as compelling as men’s wrestling, despite the fact that WWE is largely responsible for its subjugation as a sexualised side-show for the past several decades.
“That was my concern in trying out for WWE,” Evanson says. “‘What are they gonna make me wear?’ I wouldn’t want to wear booty shorts and a sports bra while wrestling because I’m not comfortable doing that and I really just want to be seen as an athlete. But obviously they’re changing, so that’s good.
“I’m happy to see it. Anything that moves women forward in this region is going to be good, in any profession,” she continues.
Diana, who wrestles covered and wears a mask to compete, faced some issues in the fans’ perception of her gender when she first began wrestling at 16. “After my debut match, [fans] were confused [as to] whether I was a boy or a girl because I was completely covered,” she says. “I always knew that I wanted my gear to look different from skimpy and sexy traditional women’s [wrestling] gear [but] not confuse people.”
To emphasise her femininity, Diana has added some colouring to her gear to make it look “more girly girl.”
Given their preference for conservative wrestling gear, would Evanson or Diana want to work for WWE, where many of their female employees are still highly sexualised and feminised, in the future?
Though Evanson’s initial tryout was unsuccessful—“I really think they wanted to put an Arab woman forth, so they chose Shadia Bseiso, [who] is an amazing choice”—”if they ever change their mind they have everything they need,” she says.
Diana is more enthusiastic.
“Of course! WWE is the reason I wanted to be a wrestler so I would love to hopefully be the first Muslim woman in WWE.”
The new four-part drama series On The Ropes exploring the world of women's boxing premieres on SBS on November 28.