In pictures: Yemen's kickboxing girls
Seham Amer (left) is a Yemeni kickboxer who has participated in tournaments across the world, winning medals in competitions both at home and abroad. The start of the war in Yemen in 2014 made it hard for the now 25-year-old to travel outside of the country frequently enough to be competitive abroad so she decided to put her talents to use locally. At just 18, she set up a gym in Yemen's capital city, Sanaa, which is dedicated to training a new generation of female martial artists.
Amer started kickboxing at the age of six and has had a successful career so far, complete with a black belt, as well as medals in regional tournaments. Her career highlight was a gold medal at the Arab Club Championship in Amman in 2017, which she participated in despite the conflict in Yemen.
Amer says that her gym - the Yemeni International Academy of Martial Arts - currently draws around 100 students for different classes. Located in central Sanaa, Amer is optimistic that it can draw a thousand members one day.
As Yemen is a religiously conservative country most of the gyms still functioning despite the war cater almost exclusively to men. Amer's gym is therefore a rarity as her students are all women and girls, mostly in their early teens. She offers training in kickboxing, as well as related martial arts, such as Muay Thai. The latter discipline uses more body parts - such as knees and elbows - whereas kickboxing relies primarily on kicks and punches.
According to Amer, martial arts provide women with a way to defend themselves against the sexual harassment and abuse they face in society. She says even trivial activities like visiting the market can become an ordeal because women are subject to unwanted advances. By learning to fight, women do not have to rely on others to come to their aid, she explains.
Practitioners of martial arts end up with a stronger character and high levels of self-confidence, Amer says. That assertion is backed by numerous scientific studies, which say that as well as the physical health benefits, those who take part in martial arts enjoy lower levels of anxiety and fewer incidences of depression. Some researchers say that such sports can provide an inexpensive alternative to therapy.
Amer says that a girl must learn martial arts "so when she is harassed getting on the bus, going shopping or walking down a street, she can defend herself".
Running a gym in the middle of a city targeted with air strikes and in the midst of a warzone is difficult. Equipment is hard to come by due to a blockade by the Saudi-led alliance fighting for control of the country on territory controlled by the Houthis. Given this lack of resources, Yemen's official sporting bodies prioritise men's sports.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.