By Sohail Malik
At 19, Nor “Phoenix” Diana has only been performing for three years but has already made a significant impact in the world of professional wrestling.
The first woman to wrestle in a hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women, she captured her maiden championship in Malaysia Pro Wrestling and has recently performed in the Philippines.
“I have a goal to wrestle in WWE,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to World Wrestling Entertainment. “I think I can bring something to the wrestling industry. I want people to see me as a wrestler, and not just as some Muslim hijab girl.
“I started watching wrestling when I was 14 with my father and little brother as they were fans. I eventually became a fan too, and started thinking, ‘Hey, I want to do that one day,’.”
When she finished high school in 2016, she started searching for a place to get her in-ring training under way.
She enrolled in a wrestling school in the Kampung Baru, a Malay enclave in central Kuala Lumpur.
But not everyone at home was comfortable with her ambitions.
“My dad has always been supportive, but my mum doesn’t really support me. I’m her youngest daughter,” she said. “She knows wrestling has a high risk, and is afraid that I’ll get injured easily.”
Despite her concerns, Nor’s mother didn’t stand in the way.
Nor’s coaches were so impressed with her acrobatic style that she debuted in the ring two months after starting her training.
Initially, reluctant to wrestle in the standard hijab, Nor, five feet tall and weighing less than 50kg, wore a mask to accommodate her religious beliefs.
She made the switch in 2018.
“When I started I was always worried that I don’t belong in wrestling as I wear a hijab. I was worried what people would say about a Muslim girl wrestling. But I always trained in my scarf, and I started feeling more comfortable and confident, and decided to wear it to the ring. My bosses were really supportive of my decision.”
Some people on social media have criticized her, saying Muslim women should not be involved in rough sports.
But on the whole, her choice hasn’t hindered her progress.
That’s not surprising to Malaysian sports commentator Abu Bakar Atan, who said that, within the Malaysian context at least, a woman wrestling in a hijab is not something out of the ordinary.
“The number of female athletes wearing the hijab is notable in Malaysia these days as they practice their religious belief without much issue. It’s not a social taboo.”
Nor hopes her example will encourage more girls to take up wrestling and other sports.
WWE Superstar Ali, an American of South Asian heritage whose real name is Adeel Alam, told Al Jazeera that he was “beyond impressed” with Nor and believes she has a bright future.
“She’s breaking down barriers. She’s inspiring athletes across the globe that a hijab doesn’t limit or define them. She’s ‘normalizing’ the hijab, something many people don’t understand. I can totally see her making it to WWE,” he said. “Can you imagine the influence she would have on a global stage like that? I’m rooting for her, I really am.” – Al Jazeera.