“I can lift a boy up,” she said.
Al Haddad is one of 12 women who train as competitive weight lifters in the United Arab Emirates, combating the stigma of lifting as a “man’s sport” in the Arab country, whose local population — despite the presence of bikini-clad foreigners for decades — holds to its conservative Muslim tradition.
Weight lifting is often confused with bodybuilding in the Emirates and women who take part are often seen as masculine, or lesbian, which is a crime in the U.A.E.
In the summer, Khadija Mohammed, 17, became the first female Emirati lifter to make the Olympics.
More conservative Emiratis say the sport “should be for a man, that your body will be changed,” said Faisal al-Hammadi, the secretary-general for the U.A.E. Weightlifting Federation.
Female lifters say they are told that the sport will make them unattractive to male suitors; marriage is still considered the most important event in a young Emirati woman’s life.
“A lot of women say, ‘Wow, look at her body,’ ” Al Haddad said. “They ask me how to get lean, and when I say I weight lift, they get scared. But it’s the 21st century now. I don’t want to get married until I make the Olympics.”
Her sinewy frame is a testament to the grueling daily training sessions that include clean-and-jerk and snatch lifts or core and strength training.
Weight lifting remains the only women’s national team of the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
“We tried to make a team with other countries like Kuwait and Bahrain, but they also faced that negativity,” al-Hammadi said.
The U.A.E. allowed women to weightlift starting in 2000. In 2008, it separated the bodybuilding and weight lifting federations, lessening the decidedly unfeminine imagery attached to lifting compared with that of bodybuilding’s hulking muscles and popping veins.
With support from the Dubai Sports Council, the federation has put an emphasis on the sport, recruiting athletes who would not gravitate toward lifting.
In 2009, it brought in a new head coach, Najwan El Zawawi, an Egyptian who competed for her home country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Last year, the International Weightlifting Federation lifted a competition ban on head scarves, effectively opening the sport to female Muslim athletes.
In April, the U.A.E. sent a team to the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, the first time they had competed internationally.
The group performance there was good enough to win Mohammed a berth to the London Olympics, effectively placing the Emiratis on the sport’s global map.
But the program is still badly underfinanced, and stigma against the female athletes is rampant.
“Our resources are less than other countries with a female athlete culture, like Kazakhstan,” al-Hammadi said.
He hopes the Olympic hype will change things, like in 2005, when Dubai hosted the Asian Weightlifting Championship. It was the first time most Emirati women had heard of weight lifting.
“After that, they knew it was something they should join,” he said. “Friends, sisters joined the team together.”
It could help that the woman onstage, clean-and-jerking the dumbbell, is wearing a head scarf.
Al Haddad said of her sport, “Close friends are interested now.”
“People like us, when they see someone like them doing it, they can identify,” Al Haddad said. They realize that “you can still love and respect your beliefs,” but be an athlete.
Hopes are high that the women’s team will eventually catch the men, who lift in a different gym at Dubai’s sprawling Al Shabab Al Arabi Club, and who number more than 35.
At a recent workout, Al Haddad, in the company of a male trainer, wore full arm and leg compression skins under her shorts and a short-sleeve shirt with the word “beast” printed in bold across it, a concession to tradition.
Sweat running down her face, she chugged an amino acid drink supplement and said she pushed through the pain — and the negative comments — by thinking about four things: “Focus and breathe and stretch and Olympics.”