Huda Salem shouts “Oh Hussain” as she lifts 133 pounds. Before lifting the weights, she invokes the name of Imam Hussain or Imam Ali, two main figures of Shiite Islam. “It is like a blessing,” she explains. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Huda, Hadeel and their little brother Ali, 6, are in the girls’ bedroom. Haddel takes a selfie as Huda poses with some of her medals. Ali entertains himself with the medals’ boxes. (Emilienne Malfatto)

In Sight recently talked to photographer Emilienne Malfatto about her experience documenting the female weightlifters of Iraq’s Sadr City. Here’s what she had to say:

I started working in Iraq in 2014 as a special envoy for AFP (Agence France-Presse). A few months later, I moved to Iraqi Kurdistan as a freelancer. For almost two years, I covered the war against ISIS, then decided I needed a break from conflict, and started working in southern and central Iraq.

Sadr’s City female weightlifters is one of those stories you hear about and that stays in your mind. I first learned about the team reading an old AFP article. That was more than a year ago — but it took a very long time to get access. The girls and the coach were hard to locate, and the usual social media tracking didn’t work, and, given what Sadr City is, the “wandering and asking around” approach was not much of an option. I was stuck.

Then, one day, a friend of a friend finally gave me the coach’s phone number. I was in the south of Iraq and called him on a late night. He spoke quickly, in a very “effective” tone. He asked me who I was, where I was, then said “ahlan wa sahlan”, the Arabic way to say “welcome.” I was in, finally. I headed to Baghdad the next day.

Working in Sadr City was challenging by itself — at least at the beginning. The neighborhood is known to be extremely conservative and dangerous. Even many of my Shiite friends are afraid to go there, because of the bombings and the militias.

But, as it sometimes happens in Iraq, once I got there, I found a pretty normal Iraqi neighborhood, a bit far away from the rest of the city. The first time I went in — in the back seat of a local taxi, covered from head to toe — I noticed dozens of car repair shops, many concrete T-walls. The women in the streets were all wearing abayas — which is not so common in Baghdad. There were also giant pictures of Shiite militias, Imam Hussain and, of course, Moqtada al-Sadr.

Danger was part of the deal — there was once a huge bombing just a day after I had been in the neighborhood. But I was always lucky, and I ended up losing the fear I initially had from Sadr City. I was also lucky enough to have local friends who came totally out of their way to help me.

I first met the team in April 2017, then came back in the summer — it was over 60 degrees Celsius, and there were many power cuts. But the relationship with the place was different: I was no longer a stranger, I was a friend coming back. Being young, a girl, and speaking Arabic was a huge plus. I could, for example, spend the day at home with Huda, alone with the girls, just being there — and that’s what, at the end, helps the story be good: People stop noticing you.

For me, this story is a way to show how different Iraq can be from what we imagine. Yes, it is Sadr City. Yes, it is violent and conservative. But you also have life — in a very strong and simple way. And you also have girls — young women — challenging stereotypes. I think this is a strong feminine story. But, above all, it is, to me, one of the best example of Iraq’s contrasts. For this, I like the photo of Huda and Hadeel in their living-room, with pictures of sport on the wall and the photo of Moqtada al-Sadr on the fridge: There is everything I want to communicate with this story.

I would like to keep on working on the story. I am keeping in touch with the team, and I would love, for example, to follow Huda and Hadeel in a competition abroad. See what they are like outside of Sadr City. That should be interesting.

Abbas Ahmed Abbas, the team’s coach, used to train male weightlifters. He now runs his team with an iron fist, forbidding the girls to have a phone number, a social media account or a boyfriend. “Those stuffs are dangerous,” he says. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Huda, left, and her sister, Hadeel, 17, sit in their living room in Sadr City. On the walls are photos of Huda in sport clothes and of her father, Salem Na’ime. A former football coach, he is also a member of the Hashd-al-Shaabi Shiite militias and did his “jihad” against the Islamic State in Anbar province. On the fridge is a photo of Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader, head of a militia that used to fight fiercely the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The neighborhood, “Sadr City”, has been named after him. It used to be called “Saddam City” in reference to former dictator Saddam Hussein. (Emilienne Malfatto)

The sports hall lacks renovation and used to be an army base. An giant Iraqi flag (red, white, black, and reading “Allahu akbar” in the middle) has been painted on the wall. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Zahra Hussein, a member of the team, relaxes during the daily training. The girls train everyday for roughly three hours, except on Friday (the usual day off in Muslim countries). (Emilienne Malfatto)

Members of the Iraqi national weightlifting team stretch before their daily training outside the gymnasium in Iraq’s Sadr City. (Emilienne Malfatto)

A team member looks in the broken mirror to adjust her headband before training. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Hammoudi (nickname for Muhammad) is one of two boys that trains along with the team. While men and women have limited interactions in conservative parts of Iraq, the team members don’t really mind if men or boys are present — they are perhaps too focused to pay attention. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Hadeel runs in the house corridor as she is late for training. When she goes outside, she wears a hijab and a long shirt over jeans. But in Sadr City, most women wear an “abaya”, a full body veil — just like Hadeel’s mother, behind her in the corridor. (Emilienne Malfatto)

The team counts nine members — all girls from Sadr City. During the training, some girls cover their hair with a headband, but it’s up to each one of them. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Huda holds one of the family’s doves. She doesn’t study and her only occupation is the daily training. She earns $750 a month: Her salary as a member of the national team. Other members earn $500. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Weights lie on the floor of the gymnasium. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Huda puts on makeup as she is getting ready to go to training at the end of the afternoon. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Huda Salem, 20, is the “star” of the team. She has been in several international competitions and can lift over 265 pounds. (Emilienne Malfatto)

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