Lift Like a Girl: Is Netflix's first Egyptian documentary a true tale of female empowerment?
As a British Egyptian woman who is passionate about weightlifting, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that the very first Egyptian documentary to screen on Netflix is about young Egyptian women pursuing their dreams of becoming Olympic weightlifting champions.
Lift Like a Girl (2020), which was released on Netflix in early August, is directed and produced by Egyptian filmmaker Mayye Zayed, and previously premiered at Cairo International Film Festival.
The 90-minute documentary follows Asmaa, fondly nicknamed Zebiba, from the ages of fourteen to eighteen as she rises to become one of Egypt’s next female Olympic weightlifting champions under the care and training of Captain Ramadan, who has successfully coached young women in Alexandria for over two decades.
"Lift Like a Girl succeeds in highlighting evolving gender perceptions in Egypt, as does it illustrate the sheer grit, determination and perseverance of Zebiba and other young women from working class families"
He takes credit for training two of Egypt’s most famous female weightlifters: his daughter Nahla Ramadan, who has competed at the Olympics several times and was a gold medallist at the 2003 World Weightlifting Championships, and Abeer Abdel Rahman, the first Arab woman to be a two-time Olympic champion.
While watching weightlifting at the Olympics, one imagines that in their home countries the highly skilled athletes must train in state-of-the-art facilities with the latest gym equipment. However, Lift Like a Girl demonstrates that this is not always the reality.
Captain Ramadan trains his young female prodigés in the unlikeliest of spots – a small sandy and rubbly fenced plot of land off the busy streets of Alexandria. The children and teenagers that train under his guidance are mainly from working-class families, and they make do with basic second-hand barbells and plates.
Throughout the film we witness Captain Ramadan struggling to get government funding, speaking to ministers’ offices over the phone, reminding them that he is the coach responsible for producing Egypt’s female weightlifting champions but to no avail.
The children contribute whatever spare cash they have, and Captain Ramadan, who is past the age of retirement, selflessly uses the little money he has to purchase equipment and buy food to share with his young weightlifters.
It is this which makes Zebiba and her counterparts’ success even more inspiring and endearing – despite the difficult economic circumstances in which they train, it is their pure determination, consistency, physical and mental strength, and merit that lead them to success at national and regional championships.
To a degree, Lift Like a Girl illustrates changing perceptions towards gender roles in Egypt, particularly within the working class. While boys are allowed to train with him too, it is clear that Captain Ramadan’s focus is on his female athletes.
At one point in the documentary, he tells the local imam, “A girl has to be as strong as a bull… Prioritising our boys is outdated. Girls are more important,” and he even manages to convince the imam to allow his young daughter to train under him.
The mothers, who sometimes come to watch their daughters lift and often accompany them to competitions, are supportive of their daughters’ passion for weightlifting and recognise that is a healthy hobby for their daughters to pursue. Captain Ramadan is defensive of his female athletes, and when boys passing by his training grounds taunt them, he is quick to chase them off – although it includes him using crude language and throwing stones at them!
The premise of Life Like a Girl is a tale of female empowerment, and although Zebiba’s journey is unquestionably inspiring, as the documentary unfolds, the story begins to descend into a tale that includes bullying, sexism, and an obsession with body weight.
There is no doubt that the young athletes revere Captain Ramadan, treating him like an older uncle, and at no point does one feel that they fear him, yet whenever Zebiba fails to complete a lift, he reacts by shouting at her and using expletives, and he even does this at a national competition, swearing at her in front of everybody.
There is a degree of bullying from one of the older female athletes Zebiba trains with, Amal. We are shown how Amal often fails to complete her own lifts successfully, yet is quick to jump on the back of Zebiba’s unsuccessful attempts and make snide comments like “she plays like a kid, not a champion.”
Later on in the documentary, another coach, Captain Nihad, goes as far as slapping Zebiba hard on her shoulder when she does not complete a snatch and Zebiba’s mother, who is present and watching, does not bat an eyelid. In fact, she makes Zebiba apologise to Captain Nihad afterwards.
What we may classify as bullying does not appear to faze the young athletes nor their parents; in Egyptian society such behaviour is often justified as “tough love” or is called “reverse psychology.”
Contrary to its title, throughout the documentary Zebiba and the other young female athletes are constantly told to lift like men. Rather than recognise their innate strength as young women, their strength is put on par with men as if lifting like a man is something to aspire to. Phrases like “man up” and “are you man enough” are regularly used, and Zebiba is often called “boy” by Captain Ramadan and Captain Nihad. Instead of female empowerment, it is masculine ideals that are reinforced by the coaches.
"Life Like a Girl is a tale of female empowerment, and although Zebiba’s journey is unquestionably inspiring, as the documentary unfolds, the story begins to descend into a tale that includes bullying, sexism, and an obsession with body weight"
Certain sporting competitions, Olympic weightlifting being one of them, require athletes to fall within certain weight categories. Hence, Zebiba is expected to keep an eye on her weight and not go over 51kg in order for her to be able to compete within her category.
However, as the documentary unfolds, there appears to be an unhealthy obsession with her weight, to the point where she does not eat properly in the lead-up to her competitions. At one point Captain Ramadan is discussing diet with one of the mothers the night before a competition, and she is advised to feed her daughter two apples and yoghurt.
On the morning of the competition, Captain Ramadan warns Zebiba “you better not have eaten anything!” to which Zebiba swears she hasn’t, and he mentions that he told Captain Nihad, “Don’t you dare tell her to eat.”
Eating enough macronutrients is essential in order to for one’s muscles to have the energy required to carry out fast, powerful, and heavy lifts like cleans, snatches and jerks, but there appears to be little understanding of this, nor an acknowledgement that it is perhaps Zebiba’s frugal diet that results in her not having enough energy or strength to carry out heavier lifts. Then there is the fact that Zebiba is only a teenager, and her body is still developing. There is a danger with this constant hounding of a young woman’s weight of eventual body dysmorphia and the development of eating disorders.
It is important to bear in mind that the style of this documentary is observational – the filmmakers do not talk nor voice their insight or opinions, and the camera’s focus is given in its entirety to Captain Ramadan, Zebiba and the young athletes. Hence, while the documentary highlights the bullying, sexism, and the fixation on body weight, the filmmakers neither condone nor condemn what is on film – it’s an objective, ethnographic piece.
Lift Like a Girl succeeds in highlighting evolving gender perceptions in Egypt, as does it illustrate the sheer grit, determination and perseverance of Zebiba and other young women from working-class families who set their sights on becoming weightlifting champions.
It also goes to show that Olympic weightlifting and participation in competitions like the Olympics are not confined to the middle and upper classes in Egypt. However, the bullying, reinforcement of masculine traits and ideals, and the fixation on diet and being a certain weight mean that it is difficult to classify it as a true tale of female empowerment.
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, being published by Hashtag Press in the UK in October 2020
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA