Jordanian woman body-builder takes on world of prejudice

Her highly muscled body is smothered in tattoos, she is constantly criticised by her fellow Jordanians and she suffers deep inner torment.

No matter what it takes, however, 26-year-old Farah Malhass is determined to become the first Arab woman to enter an international body-building competition.

"Everyone is against me. No one understands why I want to become an international star in figure body-building," she said.

Her pursuit comes at great personal cost; many Jordanian men have strict views on "correct" behaviour for women, as witnessed by the frequent so-called honour killings - of female family members suspected of having sex before marriage.

Malhass is a sitting target for Jordan's hardliners, not least of all because her body is covered in tattoos: a bare-breasted angel is depicted on her upper thighs, angel wings cover her back, and edgy statements are branded across her arms.

"You are somebody when you stop being nobody," reads one. "Only the one who hurts you can heal your pain," reads another.

"The tattoo is vital for me. It reveals my identity and the path I want to follow," says Malhass, who travels regularly to Beirut to get her tattoos after receiving her first one at the age of 17.

"Yes, it hurts, but it is therapeutic at the same time because the pain allows me to overcome the inner suffering that eats away at me," she says.

Hailing from a well-off Jordanian family as one of two daughters, Malhass's parents are divorced. She has no contact with her businessman father and her mother is often away on travels.

"It was my grandfather who looked after us. He always spoiled me, but when I was 20 I wanted to live alone and achieve my dream."

A rebel from an early age, she has nurtured the dream since the age of 14, when she swore that one day it would be her pictures splashed out across the walls of the gym.

Malhass began training at 20, but soon came up against the disapproval of her family, who could not understand why she should chose to "deform my body and make myself look ugly."

So she enrolled at Saint Martins College in London to study fine art, but soon dropped out.

Back in Jordan, she joined the International Organisation for Migration in 2007 and worked with Iraqi immigrants, "an experience that scarred me with their stories of torture and abuse."

Malhass left the IOM last year and is now totally committed to her ambition of taking part in international body-building competitions.

Today, she is on the verge of seeing her dream come true.

She is to travel to Canada in September to take part in an amateur body-building competition in the "figure" category, for muscle men and women who do not aim to develop huge biceps.

"If I win first prize, I would then be able to participate in professional competitions," she says.

But in Amman her plans are met with scepticism and derision far more than encouragement.

The Jordanian body-building federation has difficulty accepting a woman into its ranks. "Aren't you ashamed of parading in front of the world in a bikini," she is asked.

So far only one Jordanian athlete, Zeid al-Far, has supported her. He is also competing in Toronto and they are sharing the cost of their training.

They are also seeking sponsorship together but this is proving elusive, with just one radio station manager in Amman and a nightclub owner in Beirut taking any interest.

"Preparations for the competition are expensive, with all the vitamins and other health supplements, gym membership, food ... I've even sold my car to meet the costs," she says.

She insists she wants to reach her goal by herself, without family help.

"Besides, my grandfather is ill and if he ever learned that I was taking part in this kind of competition, he would certainly never recover."

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