It was never Shadia Bseiso’s plan to become a WWE wrestler.
The 31-year-old Jordanian athlete, versed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, had built her career on-camera as a live events and sports presenter.
“I wanted to be as accomplished as possible as an athlete so that I could gain a lot of credibility as a sports entertainment presenter. That’s what I had in mind,” she tells Al Jazeera.
In January 2017, Shadia was invited to a casting audition to host the first World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. (WWE) show in Arabic, “Wal3ooha” – meaning “light it up” – in Dubai.
But spotting her potential to become a WWE Superstar, the sports entertainment company offered Shadia a chance to compete at the invitation-only athlete tryouts.
She seized the opportunity and made headlines in October, becoming the first Arab woman to sign with WWE.
“I would like people from the region to first be proud. I would like to make them proud as an athlete and as an entertainer and as the first Arab woman to sign with WWE,” says Shadia.
“It’s a really big deal and a very big responsibility.”
Under a developmental contract with WWE, Shadia has relocated to Orlando, Florida, where she is being coached at the company’s training centre in the hope that she will be scooped up by popular WWE TV wrestling shows such as SmackDown and RAW.
“Bseiso’s athletic abilities, confidence, and natural charisma – the last of which she showcased as a bilingual TV presenter – earned her the opportunity to further develop her skills with WWE,” the organisation said upon signing her on.
Shadia says she was surprised to find herself working with WWE.
“The road to WWE when you’re from the Middle East was never clear. There weren’t any tryouts. You see athletes of Arab heritage, but [they are] people who grew up in Canada or in the UK. None from the region,” she says.
“This is why this is so beautiful right now for this generation and the next generation and the one to come. Girls and guys can grow up in the Middle East and say: ‘I want to be a WWE superstar’.”
The path to WWE
The presenter-turned-athlete was born and raised in the Jordanian capital, Amman. She started her career as a radio show host at a young age in Lebanon, where she was completing a Bachelor’s degree in Business Studies at the American University of Beirut.
After graduating, she moved to Dubai where she continued working in radio before setting up her own company, SDB Media, for live presenting shows.
From hosting for Hugo Boss alongside actor Gerard Butler to events for Nike, Porsche and Pepsi, Shadia quickly became a recognised name in the field of live presenting.
At the same time, she trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and CrossFit and competed regularly in the UAE.
“Shadia is a very hard worker. She was the first among my siblings and I to land a job at around 15 or 16,” her sister, Jehan, tells Al Jazeera from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
“I absolutely felt that she would do big things. She is very determined whenever she puts her mind to something – she is the kind of person who does not procrastinate,” says Jehan.
Sports seems to run in the family.
Shadia’s other sister, Arifa, is the head of the women’s national boxing team in Jordan and a brand ambassador for Nike in the Middle East.
She was featured in an online Nike commercial, which went viral, aimed at smashing stereotypes about female athletes in the Arab world.
— Nike (@Nike) March 8, 2017
In some countries in the region, women continue to face social stigma when choosing to pursue sports as a career.
Aline Bannayan, a veteran Amman-based sports journalist, says Shadia’s recognition on the international scene is representative of progress in the region.
“Bseiso’s achievement, regardless of what the sport is, speaks for itself. It will open the door for other women,” Bannayan told Al Jazeera.
“Ten, 15 years ago, women’s football in the region did not exist. Jordan is now going to host the Asian women’s cup next month,” she continued.
“The stereotypes are slowly being eroded, and a lot of walls are being broken down,” said Bannayan, adding that while wrestling is not a common sport in the region, “this achievement is important regardless”.
Gender equality, says Shadia, is of utmost importance.
As her fame rises, commentary about Shadia circulates on the internet.
“If you go online – you’ll find all sorts of opinions,” says Shadia in response to a question about being judged. “I am completely okay with people having their opinions. I always surround myself with a very positive circle – you need that, really.”
“I want to be a positive role model. I hope that I truly change the image and for it not to be an issue for girls to want to do whatever they want to do,” she says.
“I’m going to work as hard as possible to show that females in the region are empowered, unstoppable, ambitious, goal-oriented and winners. That’s the goal.”
WWE’s depiction of Arabs as villains
But battling gender stereotypes at home might not be Shadia’s only challenge; WWE has had a controversial past with its depiction of Arab characters.
In 2005, the network portrayed an Italian-American wrestler, Mark Copani, as an Arab-American, giving him the stage name “Muhammad Hassan” and having him appear in a “terrorism” storyline.
The show aired on the same day the London bombings took place – July 7, 2005, which caused an uproar and led WWE to abruptly end Copani’s career.
And, during the 1980s wrestling boom, WWE often depicted wrestlers of Middle Eastern origin as villains.
During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, General Adnan, an Iraqi, Colonel Mustafa, an Iranian, and Sgt Slaughter, an American, were portrayed as “Iraqi sympathisers” wearing Arab headdresses and donning Iraqi flags on their military stage uniforms. They were referred to as the “Triangle of Terror”.
When asked whether she would agree to perform against the backdrop of similar storylines, Shadia chose to be diplomatic and refrained from commenting.
For now, she is headed full steam ahead to the WrestleMania show.
“You see people who were at the performance centre three and four years ago; they are now huge superstars on WWE SmackDown and RAW.
“It’s doable, and I’m gonna do it.”
Follow Zena Tahhan on Twitter: @zenatahhan
Source: Al Jazeera