While the Houthis, an Islamic political and armed movement that emerged from Sa'dah in northern Yemen in the 1990s, are engaged in a running battle with a Saudi-led coalition, the war that keeps swiping Yemen has now killed more than 100,000 people and reduced large parts of the capital to rubble, a row of young girls in red, white and black white uniforms pummel punching bags and practice self-defence.
The girls are all students at Academia gym, a project set up by champion Yemeni kickboxer Seham Amer that takes place in the middle of Yemen’s capital Sanaa, a city that sees years of war and months of uncontrolled COVID-19 pandemic.
“In Yemeni society, people fear for girls,” Amer admitted. “Many come to train to learn self-defence, others train for fitness.”
In the corner amidst the training session, a mother looks on in pride as a female instructor shows her daughter how to thwart an assailant with a gun.
Amer set up the gym to empower women and girls in the city in 2015, a year after the Iran-aligned Houthi group took over Sanaa and most of north Yemen after ousting the Saudi-backed government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
But the classes have never stopped despite the restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Parts of the programme have even expanded, declared Amer, who has won gold and silver medals in international kickboxing competitions, and prizes and certificates in other martial arts.
“Before we had a problem with little girls who stop their training by 12 to 14 years as they could not continue with male trainers,” she added. “I feel that I have changed that now, older women come to train with me in my gym.”
Around 50 women and girls have signed up for kickboxing, karate, kung fu and other programmes.
“The first thing that happened when I started training was that I lost weight, then my self-confidence had a boost and my personality got stronger,” one of the students, Dhikra, stated.
Indeed, the initiative is beyond a mere sport project. It could be better defined as a look at a brighter and promising future in the middle of an everlasting war.