Iraqi Kurd Shylan Kamal helped her mum knead bread until she realized it was a good workout. Kamal, 46 and a mother, believes bodybuilding promotes female equality in Iraq's independent Kurdistan region.
"Having muscles is good for women too," she told AFP at a gym in the regional capital Arbil, where she trains for four hours a day. "We can express our beauty through bodybuilding," Kamal stated.
Three years ago, the nutritionist and former photographer returned to Kurdistan from Germany to find a traditional and patriarchal community that questioned her bodybuilding ambition.
She ignored criticism. She remarked, "I don't care at all what people say, I have my own opinions," and she rejects society's beauty standards for women.
"Why can't beautiful women be strong?" Kamal trained since 22. On Instagram, she poses in a bikini and flexes her muscles during European bodybuilding contests, occasionally waving the Iraqi Kurdistan flag.
After a warm-up, she uses weight machines, dumbbells, and pushups. She placed third in three British and German tournaments in recent months. The last was Cologne's FIBO Global Fitness Expo in mid-April.
"People here are not used to seeing women in bathing suits showing off their muscles," Kamal said, adding that visitors outside are astonished to hear she is Iraqi.
Iraqi culture progressively accepts women's sports. Women are playing more football, boxing, kickboxing, and weightlifting.
Kurdistan has developed sports facilities due to its relative stability following the 2003 US-led invasion.
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