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Meet the Arab Women Crushing Feminine Stereotypes with Their Big Muscles

Are women with big muscles considered feminine by society? Arab women talk strength, femininity, and crushing beauty stereotypes in the Middle East.

From left Dara Kayalli, Angelica Yassine, and Somaiah Al Dabbagh wear dresses, Olivia von Halle; shoes, Christian Louboutin. Photographed by Sandra Chidiac

It’s one of the last frontiers for body positivity among women: big muscles. Even as the fitness revolution inspired by coronavirus lockdowns has women around the world incessantly working out, it remains a rare sighting to witness a woman with muscles bigger than those of the average man. It is still new for many to see the image of an empowered woman through physical strength. Enter bodybuilders, CrossFit champions, powerlifters, and fitness models keen to transform their bodies into bulging muscle mass along with smashing perceptions of female elegance. Thanks to social media and international awareness, the image of a physically strong and powerful woman is becoming more familiar and accepted. Yet stereotypes, unacceptance, and negativity towards the idea of an Arab woman with big muscles persist.

Dara Kayyali wears dress, Hervé Léger; shoes, Christian Louboutin. Photographed by Sandra Chidiac

Arab women with muscles wrestle with both the positive and negative aspects of their body image in respect to what is socially acceptable. Many are still torn between their passions and what society expect from them as women. At 32, Emirati CrossFit athlete Shaikha Al Qassimi is the UAE’s most recognizable face when it comes to women with big muscles. She’s also an advocate for body acceptance and ending the body shaming of women who do not meet unrealistic standards of beauty. But arriving at this point was a long and painful journey for the athlete, who recently left the country to move to Mallorca, Spain. “It’s not that I don’t value my culture and my heritage but I value my freedom too much,” says Al Qassimi on why she moved. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be with the boys – I always wanted to play with motorbikes and cars and I was always being told, ‘No, you are a girl. Go play with your girl cousins.’” The more that Al Qassimi repressed her passions, the harder it was for her to enjoy any freedom of expression. “I was never given a safe place to speak my mind, my thoughts, and to show who I really was,” she continues. “It’s been an incredible journey since finding CrossFit. It’s been such a gift as it finally allowed me to express myself physically and verbally as well with people and new audiences, particularly on social media. I am always happy to reach out to other women, even if I don’t know them, and give them advice on exactly the issues regarding physicality and acceptance that I have struggled with.” Growing up, Al Qassimi would go to the mall with her sister uncovered. “People used to scream at us and say ‘Look, it’s Shakira, look, look!’ Guys used to point at us and harass us.” At the time, she and her sister didn’t understand what the harassment meant but it made them feel so insecure that they began covering their bodies. “It was hard for me to feel comfortable and happy in my own skin because of that,” she says. “It was this idea that I will never be accepted as I am because I look a certain way. That crushed me. It wasn’t just my physicality, but it was because I was not speaking or acting or walking like the typical Emirati.”

Dara Kayyali wears dress, Alaïa. Photographed by: Sandra Chidiac

While Al Qassimi decided that she needed to leave her country in order to feel at home in her body, other Arab women in Dubai say that times are changing. Saudi fitness athlete Somaiah Al Dabbagh has long competed in female fitness competitions, including those staged by World Beauty Fitness & Fashion, an international fitness pageant organizer. “I am a bodybuilder and I compete in the category where women are judged on their overall physique and beauty but are still very muscular. Then there is a fitness category where I am in now because my muscles grew over the years, which I love,” she shares. “The community has been amazing. When I first got into it in 2015, I thought I might get some hassle from people – Arabs and other women – for my big muscles but everyone has been supportive.” Al Dabbagh says that many women have messaged her from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait telling her how much she inspired them to take their fitness more seriously. “The women thank me for opening up these doors they thought were permanently closed – you can be a feminine Arab woman and also be physically strong,”she smiles. “When I am at my peak, I have big, sculpted muscles but it looks beautiful and feminine. It’s not like I am Arnold Schwarzenegger!”

Somaiah Al Dabbagh wears dress, Hervé Léger; shoes, Christian Louboutin. Photographed by Sandra Chidiac

Dara Kayyali, a Palestinian-Jordanian engineer by day and CrossFit athlete by night, is physically much bigger than most girls her age. “When I started CrossFit it was just recreational; I didn’t think much about the idea of women having big muscles as I was just doing it for fun. But as I got more competitive and saw that my body was becoming more muscular, things changed,” she says. “For Arabs, a girl should not be too muscular. This is also the opinion of my family: A woman and muscles don’t go together. It’s a man’s thing.” What has given the 24-year- old more confidence as she excels is to be around the CrossFit community and more muscular women like herself. “However, if I go to weddings or a party and need to wear a dress and show my muscles, I don’t feel one hundred percent comfortable,” she shares. “Some of the girls judge me and say, ‘How can you do this to yourself ?’ Or, I have other friends that tell me not to get bigger.” Kayyali says most of the backlash comes from women, not men. “Women are more judgmental; my guy friends are more encouraging,” she says. “I don’t feel pressure from men as much as I do from women.” She does get positive comments on social media, though, and says that negativity has not put her off course. “I can’t stop CrossFit because it is part of who I am; it is my form of expression,” she says.

Angelica Yassine wears dress, Hervé Léger; shoes, Christian Louboutin. Photographed by Sandra Chidiac

Jordanian-Filipino strength coach Angelica Yassine agrees that the Arab world is becoming more open to the idea of women with muscles, thanks to social media. “The relationship between physically strong women and femininity is about feeling confident in your own skin,” she says. “Femininity to me is about feeling confident and comfortable.” When it comes to fashion, these strong Arab women don’t believe that having big muscles takes away from their feminine nature. On the contrary – they all enjoy dressing up. “I love wearing glamorous dresses,” says Al Qassimi. “I can wear my workout clothes just as easily as I can put on a sophisticated dress.” Yassine concurs. “Of course women with muscles can wear dresses. Women are pushing boundaries of what it means to be feminine. Women with muscles also want to feel beautiful.”

Read Next: Meet the Arab Women of Determination Giving a Deeper Meaning to Body Positivity

Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Makeup: Diana Tin
Makeup assistant: Sarah Saya

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