Grappling with Religion and Sport

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By Jason Burgos

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art based on the teachings of Helio Gracie. It attracts a wide range of followers, be they die-hard Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fans, middle-aged nine-to-fivers trying to stay in shape or young kids wanting to be able to defend themselves.

Egyptian-born sisters Yara and Nancy Helmy dipped their toes in the waters of grappling via a self-defense class in 2012. The two immigrated to the United States with their family in 2000. While fight sports weren’t popular in Egypt,  Yara, 22,  and Nancy, 26, developed a love for the sport once they were able to transition from basic self-defense training to BJJ classes. Now they are fixtures at Mount Laurel New Jersey’s McHugh Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, under the tutelage of Professor Pete McHugh.

What makes their story unique is that, as Muslims, they adhere to Islamic religious traditions by wearing a hijab, a head covering.  Along with wearing the hijab, Islamic conventions only allow Yara and Nancy to “roll” with other female grapplers outside of the home. Though, they have been able to turn the rare opportunity to roll with men into a family affair. “Our dad recently started training. We roll with him” said Nancy.

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As the sisters have progressed in their BJJ skills in BJJ (they are both two-stripe blue belts) it has involved them in a discussion of how tournaments are set up. Both have taken part in many tourneys over the years, including Amateur Grappling League (AGL), The Good Fight and Grapplers Quest. Yet for some time the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) would not allow them and other Muslim women to compete in events wearing a hijab. “Even smaller tournaments were hesitant to let us compete because of the hijab,” said Nancy.

However, due to a groundswell of support for a rule change, the federation recently made the decision to adjust its rules to let them compete with the head covering. “It was very important (the change in rules) because without changing the rules we wouldn’t be able to compete in IBJJF competitions” Yara said.

The sisters say that they have heard from others in a similar situation. “Many people message us on Facebook asking if it’s possible to train yet follow Islamic beliefs,” said Yara.  “I always tell them ‘It’s possible, you just gotta work harder.’”

The sisters’ influence has stretched to the other side of the globe. A seven-year-old budding BJJ student in Australia had concerns about what would happen when the time came for her to wear a hijab and if it would affect her training. “Her mom saw our picture online and showed it to her,” Nancy said.  “The mom says her daughter was very excited and relieved that she can wear the hijab and still do BJJ.”

SicChic East Coast Fight Wear sponsors athletes from all disciplines. After seeing other competitors at a BJJ event sporting SicChic branded apparel, Yara had her interest piqued about doing the same. “I figured I’d shoot her (SicChic owner Wendy Jarva) an email to see if we can be sponsored. I was super surprised to hear back from her so quick,” she said.

Now the company is developing a grappling-specific hijab with Yara and Nancy contributing their ideas during the process. “I was very interested in their story,” said Wendy Jarva. “I believe jiu jitsu can bring people together in a positive way. I enjoy rolling with a diverse group of people and wanted to provide comfortable gear with respect to their Islamic traditions,” she said.

The Helmy sister’s passion for BJJ is clear and they have big hopes as they continue practicing this art. “I want to win some of the bigger competitions and maybe even open a women’s school! That probably wouldn’t be until like 2060” said Yara. Nancy added, “I knew when I signed up for my first class that I’m in it for life…Black belt and beyond.”

Video of Nancy Helmy showing off her skills at AGL 4 in 2013:

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