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Olympic Gold Medalist Nawal El Moutawakel and Taekwondo Champion Dunya Aboutaleb Reflect on Their Inspiring Journeys

Arab women are in it to win it — with Olympic gold medalist Nawal El Moutawakel passing the torch to the next generation of champions like Dunya Aboutaleb, the scoreboard is clear: They are bringing their A-game.

In 1984, when cover star Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Arab and Muslim woman in history to win Olympic gold, she did more than just sprint into the record books – she shattered notions of what an Arab woman could do, despite societal assumptions. With grit and determination, fellow female athletes followed in her fast footsteps: Saudi-American sprinter Dalilah Muhammad became one of the fastest women of all time at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, while Tunisian fencer Inès Boubakri won bronze at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. Her compatriot Ons Jabeur was ranked number two in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association in 2022.

Nawal El Moutawakel Dunya Aboutaleb

Dunya Aboutaleb dress, Oscar de la Renta; headscarf, stylist’s own. Nawal El Moutawakel wears dress, Nour Fathallah; earrings, talent’s own. Photo: Amer Mohamad

The rise of Arab women in sports marks a significant cultural shift – and not only through their participation. In January 2018, Saudi female football fans attended a public sporting event for the first time and today, the Kingdom hosts numerous women’s sports leagues and federations and has more than 330 000 registered female athletes.

Coat, Saiid Kobeisy; earrings, Bil Arabi. Photo: Amer Mohamad

There are also thousands of Arab women in coaching, mentoring, and refereeing roles, or working as sports doctors. At this year’s Olympic Games, Dunya Aboutaleb will be the first Saudi athlete to earn direct qualification, meaning she gained her place purely on her performance and not as part of a wildcard entry. In which sport? Unexpectedly, taekwondo.

Nawal El Moutawakel Dunya Aboutaleb

Dress, Fouad Sarkis; headscarf, stylist’s own. Photo: Amer Mohamad

“Sports are a powerful force for the advancement of women around the world,” says HRH Princess Reema Bandar Al-Saud, Saudi ambassador to the US and board member of the Saudi Olympic & Paralympic Committee. The royal is also a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), where she’s been on the Women in Sports and Gender Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Committees. “Through sport, women can not only achieve their dreams on a court or field, but also drive social change. Who would deny them these dreams?”

Nawal El Moutawakel

Dress, Oscar de la Renta; earrings, Bil Arabi. Photo: Amer Mohamad

“I am Moroccan, I am Arab, I am African. I am proud of who I am: a woman, a mother, and a friend. I have strong beliefs in the power of women, and how they can impact the world when given the chance.” Born in Casablanca in 1962, Nawal El Moutawakel became the first Moroccan, African, Arab, and Muslim woman to top the podium for gold when she triumphed at the 400m hurdle event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games – the first time the highly technical event had been included for women. Her monumental achievement marked a breakthrough moment that gave Moroccan women the self-belief and courage to take up sports, which had at that point been regarded as the preserve of men. “Being the first showed me and the entire planet that women from this part of the world are capable, they have dreams, and they have big goals in life,” El Moutawakel says. She was also the first woman from a Muslim, Arab, and African nation to be elected to the IOC in 1997, becoming a vice-president in 2012. When asked what her three greatest achievements in life are, she quickly notes, “Having my children, earning my gold medal, and serving my country as a minister and member of parliament.”

Nawal El Moutawakel Dunya Aboutaleb

Nawal El Moutawakel becomes the first Arab and Muslim woman to win Olympic gold, in Los Angeles in 1984. Photo: Getty

“Forty years back in LA, nobody even knew where Morocco was,” she shares. “I am so proud to have been able to open that door to so many young girls and to carry the Olympic torch, because that flame is going to be lit forever.” In her influential position on the IOC, she has helped to push for change. In 2012, the committee issued an ultimatum to all national Olympic delegations to take on at least one woman. This was game-changing for many female athletes from the region with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei including them on their teams for the first time. It also upended decades of prejudice spanning more than a century. When Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic Games in 1896, he not only excluded women from the track and field, they weren’t even allowed to be spectators. “He said that female participation would be ‘impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and improper,’” El Moutawakel states. “The Paris Olympic Games will be the one of equity, parity, and diversity,” she adds about the event this month that will mark the first time exactly half of the competitors will be women. “It will be remembered forever.”

Photo: Getty

The champion hails from a family of athletes – her mother played volleyball, her father practiced judo, and her five brothers and sisters all participated in sports. “Having the support of my parents was so important. I still remember my mom preparing orange juice for me, saying I have to be strong to break records. My father carried my bag and attended local competitions with me when I was 14,” she recalls. “He was my role model – tall, big, and strong. I always looked up to him. When I wanted to give up, he would remind me that the best gifts come in small packages. He would say, ‘You are so powerful, and you can make it one day.’ Those are the memories I still cherish.” It is evident that this encouragement influenced her instinct to support the next generation of athletes. “First of all,” she says, “believe in yourself, practice self-control, and push yourself beyond your limit.”

El Moutawakel’s shoes. Photo: Amer Mohamad

She’s particularly enthusiastic about the participation of Arab and Muslim women, who have won a profound and much-awaited sense of autonomy and respect. “I have attended the Saudi Games twice and I have witnessed women grabbing their chances – they are there to compete and to win.” This is exemplified by her fellow cover star and Saudi taekwondo athlete, Dunya Aboutaleb, who “wowed” El Moutawakel during their day spent together on the shoot. “I saw that power, that flame within her and within every Saudi woman. I will be there in August to attend her competition in Paris, and I would like to put a gold medal around her neck.”

Dunya Aboutaleb

At 26, taekwondo champion Dunya Aboutaleb is the first Saudi woman to earn direct qualification for the Olympics. “This is a historical moment,” she says. “I am proud as a Saudi citizen. Being the first woman is a great challenge for me – when I achieve in my sport, I don’t do it only in my name, I do it in the name of Saudi Arabia.” Aboutaleb’s determination is almost tangible, her desire to win fierce, and her persona is calm, collected, and humble.

Growing up in Jeddah, Aboutaleb carved out a unique and courageous path, choosing to pursue the Korean martial art taekwondo from the age of eight. “I was always fighting with my brother, and my father, a fan of martial arts, decided to teach us taekwondo,” she shares. Her family nurtured and supported her natural talent and what began as a game of friendly sparring with her sibling evolved into a story of strength and resilience. “I felt that it was the right sport for my personality,” she shares. “It gives you self-confidence, makes you react to dangerous situations with your mind before your body, and gives you intuitive speed. Martial artists always maintain their calm in situations that require patience.”

Aboutaleb with her coach Kurban Bogdaev. Photo: Supplied

Taking on not only the pressures of her sport, Aboutaleb also mitigated the societal challenges of the time. “I would go to practice wearing a hat because girls were not permitted to enter sports centers. When I was found out and not allowed back, I completed my training at home with my brother’s coach.” Fortunately, Aboutaleb’s father was always supportive. “He was happy when he watched me beat the boys. He saw something in me: I thought fear would always control me, but my father knew I had a bright future in this sport. He taught me how to rely on myself for everything I would face in life.” Her biggest challenge came with his tragic passing. “It was painful, especially since I was taking care of my family. I was studying and working, but God’s mercy and strength were always with us, and my mother’s prayers protected me.”

With Shaddad Alamri, the president of the Saudi Taekwondo Federation. Photo: Supplied

With big goals come big sacrifices, and the commitment and focus required to participate internationally is a huge undertaking. Today, Aboutaleb trains daily with men because finding opponents of the same gender competing on her level is not easy. “I faced difficulties in my journey to professionalism. I used to cry more than I laughed; I was in pain every day. I was defeated more than I won.” Yet she is determined to convey women’s sports in a manner befitting the Kingdom and to support her fellow contenders in whatever position she holds. Her advice is straightforward: “Do not let any excuse or obstacle control your mind. Fight the first war with your mind. There are always solutions to reach your dream.” She says her coach Kurban Bogdaev has continued the encouragement she received from her father. “He taught me how to be strong; he made me a woman who is difficult to defeat, who succeeds no matter the cost.”

From overcoming barriers in her training as a girl to representing her country as a woman, Aboutaleb has refused to allow setbacks to hinder her path. And with time, inevitably comes change. “We are greatly blessed that it is easy for an athlete to become successful in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we follow in the footsteps of our Kingdom’s vision. My country makes me proud to be Saudi with the support it provides to all athletes, and we are keen to raise its flag to the top.”

Nawal El Moutawakel Dunya Aboutaleb

Photo: Amer Mohamad

Originally published in the July/August 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Natalie Westernoff
Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Art director: Donna Williams
Hair: Deborah Aguera
Makeup: Emily Clayton
Set designer: Yehia Bedier
Creative producer: Beya Bou-Harb 

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