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.

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