In the beginning of August 2010, Silvana signed up to take her very first class…
Egyptian born sisters Yara and Nancy Helmy are at the forefront of a recent evolution of acceptance within BJJ, its tournament by-laws, and the apparel certain female newcomers to grappling sports may soon be wearing.
TWO SISTERS CAN SHOW THAT THE PASSIONS OF SPORT AND RELIGION CAN BE BLENDED IN TO ONE
ARTICLE BY JASON BURGOS
In our current world, acceptance is still not a universally applied concept. We live in as divisive a time as there has been in recent generations. However, the varied realms of martial arts have long been a place for family-like unity amongst people of all backgrounds. No matter your age, race, gender, or fitness level, martial arts has always afforded; people of all walks of life; the opportunity to practice in a shared passion side by side.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is no exception to this notion. The art, based on the teachings of Helio Gracie, has developed a reputation for imparting its methods to any and all interesed. Be it a die-hard Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fan, a young kid wanting to be able to defend themselves, or a middle-aged nine-to-fiver trying to stay in shape. Egyptian born sisters Yara and Nancy Helmy are at the forefront of a recent evolution of acceptance within BJJ, its tournament by-laws, and the apparel certain female newcomers to grappling sports may soon be wearing.
Having immigrated to the United States (with their family) in 2000, Yara (22 years-old) and Nancy (26 years-old) dipped their toes in the waters of grappling via a self-defense class in 2012. While fight sports weren’t popular growing up in Egypt, the two developed a love for the sport once they were able to transition from basic self-defense training to actual BJJ classes. Now they are fixtures at Mount Laurel New Jersey’s McHugh Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, under the tutelage of Professor Pete McHugh.
However, what makes the Helmy sister’s story unique is, as Muslims, they adhere to Islamic religious traditions by wearing a hijab. The hijab is a garment worn by practicing Muslim women to maintain the institutions of decency and modesty between members of the opposite sex. This leads to a distinct blending of two passions, sport and religion.
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” says Nancy.
As the sisters have progressed at their skills in BJJ (they are both two-stripe blue belts) it has involved them in a major evolution in how BJJ 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 their events. Wearing a hijab was not permitted in competition. “Even smaller tournaments were hesitant to let us compete because of the hijab” says Nancy.
Fortunately, because of the groundswell of support for a rule change, the federation recently made the decision to adjust their rules to let these talented women compete. “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. Moments like this can be very inspiring to other individuals in a similar situation. “Many people message us on Facebook asking if it’s possible to train yet follow Islamic beliefs” said Yara. She continued, “I always tell them it’s possible, you just gotta work harder.”
The influence these young women have had has even stretched to the other side of the globe. A seven year-old budding BJJ student in Australia had concerns on 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. The mom says her daughter was very excited and relieved that she can wear the hijab and still do BJJ” Nancy said.
When there is change within a sport, there are often opportunities to set new trends for apparel because of those changes. SicChíc East Coast Fight Wear is a brand that looks to be on the cutting edge of innovations in the industry. And they look to sponsor athletes from all disciplines and cultural backgrounds. 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 (SicChíc 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.
From this partnership the company has undertaken the project of developing a grappling-specific hijab, with Yara and Nancy contributing their ideas during the process. “I was very interested in their story” says 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. Still in the early stages, this headwear will be something to look out for in the future.
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” jokes Yara. Nancy adds, “I knew when I signed up for my first class that I’m in it for life…Black belt and beyond”. At this rate, the sky really is the limit for these two women.
Watch Yara at a BJJ tournament.
Photos: Bella Dreams Photography