BEIRUT: Rather than straightening her hair, putting on make-up, and spending hours deciding what to wear, Jena Lynn Karam, wakes up, ties her hair, and puts on her sports shoes. The 20-year-old female then has a hefty breakfast before leaving the house for her first sports training of the day.
After training for up to four hours and attending her university classes afterward, Karam returns again at night to the gym and trains once more for another two to four hours.
Karam created her own ‘perfect’ world by making her life all about her favorite sport.
“If you can handle being punched in the face, you can handle anything else life throws at you,” Karam told Annahar.
From a young shy female to a strong independent woman, Jena Lynn Karam became the first and youngest female in the Middle East to participate and win in a number of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) championships.
Karam tried a myriad of sports hoping that she might get into one of them, but to no avail; at the end, the young sports enthusiast decided to join a gym at the age of 16 in pursuit of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
This decision was the pivoting factor that shaped her life for years to come.
“The gym offered several classes and I joined a Thai boxing class for fun,” Karam explains, but adding that “the second I hit the pads I knew that this is what I really like.”
Karam’s passion for fighting increasingly grew as time went on.
Her newly-discovered passion wasn’t a walk in the park but demanded commitment and training that spanned long days and even nights. In 2016, she participated and won K-1, a one- night tournament in Thai boxing and other combat sports that determine the best stand-up fighter in the world.
“I was thrown into the ring,” says Karam, “I wore someone else’s gloves, somebody else’s protection, I completely blacked out and fought from my heart and that was when I made sure that this is exactly what I love.”
After her first fight, Karam wanted to discover every single type of martial art, and her coach started pushing her into MMA.
“He told me I can at least become the best in Lebanon,” said Karam.
Six months after her pivot to Martial Arts, Karam participated and won in the ‘Cedar Fighting Championship 2,’ an MMA organization that features many of the top fighters in the region, to become the first and the youngest female to ever win such championships.
Karam considers herself as one of the very few females to keep her MMA career going due to all the challenges female fighters face in Lebanon.
“No matter what, female fighters will always be criticized by someone,” says Karam, “it’s a matter of empowerment; they don’t want to see strong women.”
One of the biggest hurdles Karam faced was growing up in a family that believes that dancing is among the few sports a girl can do, while martial arts wasn’t on that list.
“It’s always hard getting your parents on board,” Karam told Annahar, adding that she sometimes had to walk to training sessions rather than drive because her parents were hesitant of her enrollment in such an aggressive sport.
“It’s never easy for a parent to witness their child getting punched,” she said.
Yet, her persistence had come to fruition, while receiving praise and respect from the media for her achievements that resulted in her family being more supportive of her decision.
The young MMA champion, however, still faces people or friends, even, that are ‘so absorbed by the Lebanese patriarchal culture’ as she describes them.
For those people, some of the values of this sport are not accepted for a female and are considered a sort of taboo as Karam described, in the sense that they go against their cultural values.
The clothes, which consist of a sports bra and shorts, girls wear while fighting, the violence involved in the fights, and seeing blood are examples of how this sport does not go with the values of the patriarchal culture.
“The first thing you hear from someone is ‘punch me I want to see how strong you are,’” explains Karam, “this is the lamest thing I’ve ever heard and I still hear it to this day.”
Karam thus learned to block out such people and started living by what her coach once told her “people will always find reasons to blame you for what they cannot do.”
Beyond all the challenges, Karam considers her MMA career as a good norm breaker.
“Lebanon is such a well-preserved culture country, and I believe that women don’t have the power that women outside the region have,” Karam told Annahar.
“MMA, in a way, helps me break those bad norms.”
In parallel to her life as an MMA fighter, Karam is a third-year communication student at the Lebanese American University; which she admits to uneven balance between the two, she still manages to get on the honors list every semester.
“I’m passionate about what I do so I’m able to go with it,” said Karam, while praising the support Raed Mohsen, Dean of students at LAU, provides her with, also helps her manage between MMA and her studies.
Out of four fights, Karam won the K-1 fight in May 2016, the Cedars Fighting Championship 2 in October 2016, and the Cedar Fighting Championship 3 in April 2017, and lost only the Cage Legacy Fighting Championship, a Mixed Martial Arts promotion, in Ireland during October 2017.
In the light of the ban of MMA and any in-cage events issued by the Lebanese Sports Ministry in February 2017, Karam will no longer be able to fight in her homeland.
Yet, she is now preparing for her next big fight that will take place abroad in March 2018.
Annahar's "Faces of Lebanon" is an occasional series that takes a look at talented young Lebanese. We encourage you nominating candidates and telling us their story. Send your nominations to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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