Women break bones, build bonds in roller derby

BEIRUT: On a typical Sunday night, you’ll find 21-year-old Nada Ben Jemaa skating on four wheels, bumping her friends to the ground and sometimes making a trip to the emergency room with broken-limbed teammates. “We didn’t choose roller derby, roller derby chose us,” she said laughing, clad head to toe in protective gear.

Ben Jemaa, a Tunisian student at the American University of Beirut, is currently both coach and manager of Beirut Roller Derby. Nicknamed “The Killer Pillar” for her height and demeanor, she towers over her teammates as she whistles for them to get information.

The all-female Beirut Roller Derby team was created in March 2015 by Elizabeth Wolffhechel, with the help of Danish NGO GAME.

Almost two years later, it is still Lebanon’s only roller derby team.

Wolffhechel, who one skater affectionately referred to as the team’s “godmother,” is a Danish veteran of the sport who competed with the Copenhagen Rolling Heartbreakers team during the 2014 Roller Derby World Cup.

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association describes the contact sport as being played on an oval track by two teams of up to five skaters each – four “blockers” and one “jammer.” The teams’ “blockers” attempt to physically prevent opponents getting around the track using crunching body slams and guile while assisting their team’s “jammer” who tries to score points by lapping opponents.

At the last practice, some 10 team members gathered at College du Sacre-Coeur in Gemmayzeh. The sound of limbs and protective pads thudding to the ground were followed by thunderous laughter. Fittingly, singer Gloria Gaynor’s hit “survive” blared in the background.

“I love it, it’s one of my highlights of the week,” Nivethiga Arulthas, a 25-year-old Norwegian student at the Lebanese American University who recently joined the team, told The Daily Star.

Roller derby is a female-dominated contact sport that grew in popularity in the United States during the early 2000s. It’s largely affiliated with the feminist movement as the sport’s contradiction of traditional gendered roles and encouragement of inclusivity is a clear link to fundamental feminist values. “I love the fact that this is a girl’s sport, but it’s not about being pretty and [conventionally] feminine. I love that I’m allowed to be a girl and that I can also push someone over,” Arulthas said.

The team is an amalgamation of young women from Lebanon, Egypt, Norway, Yemen, Bahrain and the U.S. All are students at AUB or LAU aged between 20 and 27. Despite it being a student-led initiative, the team is not affiliated with any school or organization, offering skates to any woman who is interested in joining.

But for the Beirut Roller Derby team, they say being mostly Arab woman taking part in a non-conventional contact sport has led to significant amount of clamor, projecting an image that the skaters don’t necessarily see of themselves.

“Roller derby is very much related to the feminist movement in the U.S. so everyone assumes that all women who play are hard-core feminists. That perspective is [exacerbated] when they look at roller derby teams in the Arab world,” Ben Jemaa said. “We have this problem with Western media trying to put us into this ‘Middle East box’ telling us that this team is exotic.”

The team insists that the link to feminism isn’t their major drive to lace up their skates each week. Nada al-Qabali, a 21-year-old Yemeni student at AUB who goes by the nickname “Princess” on the track, said her decision to join the team was simply to try something new and have some fun.

For Qabali, the act of breaking societal boundaries was much less intentional, or obvious, during their practices. Instead, it is a potential added product of their common interest. “It’s not that we don’t want to break gender stereotypes ... but we’re mainly doing this for fun, and then people perceive it the way they want. When I first saw them skating around the track, I thought like ‘Damn, I really want to do this.’”

“There’s this quote by Bill Gates where he said you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back. So I think at this point we’re not aware of what this could create and what this symbolizes,” Qabali added.

When speaking about some of the challenges of learning to skate, Ben Jemaa explained that – counterintuitively – learning to fall and falling on your front were the most important and most difficult strategies to learn. “The thing everyone is afraid of is falling. If you fall backward then you’re going to hurt your tailbone, or you might get a concussion with the helmet,” she said. “So, the first thing you have to learn is to fall forward. When you fall forward, you’re fully protected.”

“But falling forward is like going against some instincts,” Qabali said.

Going against conventional wisdom serves as a convenient metaphor for the team’s efforts to build roller derby in Lebanon. After Wolffhechel returned to Denmark in late 2015, Ben Jemaa and the other original skaters took responsibility for expanding the team and coaching newcomers.

But recruiting players to join has proved to be a difficult task because of sport’s obscurity, as well as the inevitable and numerous injuries that cost players dearly in medical fees.

“When you first start to learn, you fall a lot. We had people going to the ER once a week, on a regular basis ... There were five girls who really wanted to stay, but their parents asked them to leave. [Paying] $200 for an X-ray every week, it’s too much.” Ben Jemaa said.

Despite hiccups and obstacles, she soldiers on happily. As the rest of her teammates wind down at the end of practice, “The Killer Pillar” gently mocks them. “You guys are tired already? I could skate forever,” she said, whizzing past.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 24, 2017, on page 2.




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