Growing up, Maryam Al-Ali always wanted to be a footballer like her father, but she realized that as a Qatari female, there was no future for her in the sport.
So instead, she became Qatar’s first professional female show jumper.
Al-Ali, who has been in the spotlight after becoming the Qatar Financial Center’s new brand ambassador last month, began her love affair with horse-riding much later than most equestrians.
At 14, her cousin encouraged her to give the sport a try. Speaking to Doha News during a recent interview, she described riding as a “bit of an adventure,” and decided to continue the sport as a hobby.
However, after graduating from Stenden University Qatar, Al-Ali decided to devote her free time to riding more regularly and seriously.
“Horses are like cocaine,” the now 26-year-old said. “When you start (riding), you can’t stop.”
For Al-Ali, the turning point was in 2011, when she competed in her first show outside of Qatar. “I really enjoyed the feeling of having to participate, and compete, and the pressure,” Al-Ali said of the Abu Dhabi event.
The intense nature of the competition builds a rider’s connection with their horse, making every movement and every jump seem as if the two are one.
Since that meet, Al-Ali decided to take up riding professionally, and has been a part of multiple competitions across Middle East and Europe, earning rankings in many.
Balancing culture and religion
With regards to respecting her Islamic faith and her country’s conservative culture, Al-Ali said she feels lucky to have found horse-riding.
For one, there are no strict regulations on dress code for riders. This allows Al-Ali to continue wearing her hijab as she competes, and change some aspects of the dress code to keep it culturally appropriate but also safe for a rider.
The rider added that having the support of her father has also helped her forge her unique path.
Mubarak Al-Ali was a former professional football player for Qatar’s national team, and his understanding of the world of sports comes in handy when dealing with social and cultural obstacles, she added.
For the rider, the most important thing is striking a balance.
“I really like strong women with really strong character,” she said. “But I would like that if somebody sees me, they’ll say ‘I want my daughter to be like this.’”
Though people who go against their culture may be strong, they lose the respect of their societies, Al-Ali explained.
She said that by riding, she hoped to change perceptions and show people that strong women can be empowered while respecting traditions.
Even in the Prophet Muhammad’s time, women were not told to shy away from such sports, Al-Ali said, highlighting that horse-riding is engraved within Arab culture and tradition.
Al-Ali strongly believes women should not feel limited in doing what they want.
“This is our religion. We have to really be proud of it and show the world that we can do it another way,” she said.
During last month’s launch of her brand ambassador position, a commercial showed Al-Ali and her father’s relationship, with the idea that “Great success comes from great support.”
According to Al-Ali, the QFC opportunity has been a great boost for her career and “shocked everybody in a good way,” when it came out. She added that she hopes it encourages more women to take part is sports.
The rider added that she agreed to become QFC’s brand ambassador as it gave her a platform to try new things and send out a strong message.
The commercial also shows women that they can achieve what they want, while also showing men that they should be supportive, just like her father was for her, she said.
Even though there is no age limit for how long somebody can be a professional show jumper, Al-Ali believes she will reach a point where she will want to try something different.
Priorities can change, she said, adding that a life after marriage would have her wanting to care of her children.
But with compromises and a solid understanding between husband and wife, there should be no reason that either of them has to give up their jobs, Al-Ali said.
For now, however, marriage is not on Al-Ali’s mind. Instead, she wants to go back to school and get a Master’s degree.
Recalling the Prophet’s saying about how every Muslim should learn riding, shooting and swimming, Al-Ali said she plans on learning to use a gun next.