Balsam Al-Ayoub: Cut and Thrust for Multi-talented Philanthropist

Balsam Al-Ayoub Kuwait Olympian and international fencing champion

Balsam Al-Ayoub: Kuwait Olympian and international fencing champion. Photo credit: redbull.com

Balsam Al-Ayoub has been fighting for Kuwait — and gender equality — since she was a child.

Al-Ayoub’s parents encouraged her and her sister, Lulwa, to get involved in sports at an early age. The sisters gravitated towards fencing, even though there was little opportunity for girls in the Gulf region. At the time, there was only one general sports club for females, but the outlook has improved.

Al-Ayoub — who defines fencing as a “noble, elite and classy” sport — says the discipline chose her at age 16. “I had to prove that I can practise a sport which had been exclusive for men in Kuwait for years. To be a fencer means you have to be a fighter, a warrior, a dreamer, an achiever, a believer, a supporter and a champion. It’s not only about the support you get from those who believe in you, but also the greatness of being a role model, or an influencer, in your society. I take a lot of pride watching my positive influence transferred to the young generation,” she told The Talk magazine.

She finally gained admission as a professional athlete in the Kuwait Sports Club. The government-sponsored organisation abandoned its gender exclusion — and she and her sister went on to win several international competitions. “I am a professional athlete representing Kuwait around the world,” said Al-Ayoub, “and I am also a mother.” She enjoys the reactions this statement provokes.

Al-Ayoub spoke with Gulf News in 2010, around the time she left the state-sponsored club to secure private-sector endorsements. She competed across Europe, Asia and the MENA region, averaging 10 to 12 events annually over a five-year stretch.

Both sisters are considered role models for their athletic accomplishments — silver for Balsam in the Asian Games and bronze for Lulwa in the World Cup — as well as their social activism. “We respect traditions and don’t break the frame despite stretching it at times. And for the past 15 years we have managed to make our voices heard through sport.”

Al-Ayoub introduced self-defence as part of her sports, cultural and developmental programme, Be Strong, to support the UN’s global campaign to end violence against women and girls. Thousands have participated in the course. Her other pilot programme, A Champion Among Us, began as a platform to advocate for equal sporting rights for girls and has evolved into co-ed programme teaching children to use sports as a tool for personal and societal development.
“We are using sport as a medium for change on the perception of women by society at large, and I must say we have been successful to a large extent,” said Al-Ayoub. “We are just trying to do what we can in our own small way. There is no traditional law or religion that can bar or prohibit women from taking their place in society.”

Athletic apparel, on the other hand, can be a barrier for sportswomen in more conservative cultures. Al-Ayoub struggled to find outfits that would be considered suitably modest, and finally decided to make her own. Her mother, Fatima Al Omani, was a seamstress who taught her to convert fabric into fashion; now 90 percent of her wardrobe comes from her own hands.

“I designed the entire range of costumes for a fencing competition that I organised for women,” said the woman who was named by Harper’s Bazaar as Kuwait’s Best Dressed Woman in 2017.
After retiring from professional sports, Al-Ayoub launched her fashion label, Balsam Studio, and has gained a following eager to see each new season’s collection. Unlike most designers, Al-Ayoub’s work is generally related to a social cause. Profits from her premier collection, titled Sewing the Wounds, supported the anti-violence work done by the non-profit Abolish 153.

“I introduced my brand to the women community in Kuwait by connecting it to a cause that affects women in a very personal way.”

Al-Ayoub took part in a documentary-making course, which coincided with a philanthropic tour to teach football and badminton to children across Africa. She was featured in a documentary series (Her Story) about the trials and triumphs of female athletes.

Balsam and Lulwa Al-Ayoub were recognised for their outstanding social entrepreneurism by the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


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