After being orphaned, overcoming depression, female Saudi MMA fighter is now making history

The 22-year-old athlete, who once tried to take her own life, has become the first woman from Saudi Arabia to sign a multi-fight contract with a global Mixed Martial Arts league

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Somya Mehta

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Hattan's journey into the world of combat sports began through Muay Thai, for which she was awarded the title of ‘Breakthrough Female Athlete’ after winning a gold medal at the 2023 International Federation of Muaythai Associations World
Hattan's journey into the world of combat sports began through Muay Thai, for which she was awarded the title of ‘Breakthrough Female Athlete’ after winning a gold medal at the 2023 International Federation of Muaythai Associations World

Published: Tue 30 Jan 2024, 11:48 PM

Last updated: Fri 2 Feb 2024, 9:54 PM

Being a woman in 2024 prompts a myriad of questions. Does it mean wearing all pink? Or should you embrace gender neutral colours? Does it mean strutting away with your long locks? Or chopping it all off? Does it mean wearing your femininity with pride? Or seeking solace in your strength?

These questions become particularly complex if you, as a woman, have always felt detached from societal expectations. Hattan Alsaif, a 22-year-old combat sports athlete from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, has found her own way to defy limitations and societal constraints by excelling in the world of professional fighting.

On January 30, the Professional Fighters League (PFL) made history by announcing the exclusive signing of Hattan to a multi-fight contract, making her the first woman from Saudi Arabia to join a global Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) league. Previously awarded the prestigious title of ‘Breakthrough Female Athlete’, Hattan has also enjoyed victories at World Combat Games and Saudi Games.

However, what's important to note is that one cannot win a battle without bearing the scars. And Hattan wears her scars with immense pride. From being orphaned at 10 to battling severe depression and suicidal thoughts, Hattan's journey has been far from the usual.

Yet, at 22, sporting a crew cut, five tattoos on her body, each of which symbolises the hardships she’s faced, and an unquenchable fire in her belly, the Gen-Z fighter is single-handedly crushing all the gender stereotypes that made her feel like an outcast growing up.

Formative years

With her parents getting divorced on the day she was born, Hattan remembers growing up with a fractured family dynamic. “I never experienced my family being together in a single photograph,” she recounts. “All the typical family experiences that a little girl dreams of—spending time with my parents, having them do my hair before school, feeding me—none of those were part of my reality.”

Following the divorce, her father and mother embarked on new family journeys through remarriage, creating separate lives of their own. Hattan was shifted to her maternal grandmother’s house but the relationship never provided her the comfort she needed growing up as a child.

“Since the day I was born, I constantly felt like an outsider, like someone who didn't belong. It wasn't a good feeling for a child to experience day in and day out,” says Hattan. “My childhood had numerous missing pieces, but I believe these experiences shaped me. They made me independent because from very early, I realised I only had myself to fall back on.”

Orphaned at age 10

Her mother's passing at the age of 10, due to a terminal illness, added another layer of complexity to her early experiences, growing up in a turbulent household. “I never really knew my mother,” says Hattan. Despite her visits, Hattan confesses, she struggled to forge any real connection with her mother. Yet, she always longed for the typical expressions of motherly love.

“By the time I started making sense of the world, my mother was never around. Our interactions were always cordial but there was no depth in our relationship," says Hattan. "I’d often wonder why she never raised her voice at me. I wanted her to scold me, shout at me. I wanted to experience the things that mothers typically do, but I never felt any real connection. All I knew was, this woman had given birth to me and she loved me.”

However, what really tipped her over the edge was an incident that occurred shortly after. Exactly 10 months after her mother's passing, Hattan received the news that her father in a car accident, leaving her in a state of profound shock. “I couldn’t come to terms with the loss for a very long time,” she recounts.

Feeling robbed of the only sense of security and belonging she had ever known, her father's demise ignited a very disturbing phase in Hattan's life.

“My father provided a refuge," says Hattan. "Despite seeing him only on weekends, those moments were precious. He took me to the zoo, the supermarket, and the mall – and he didn’t just ‘take’ me to places, he engaged with me. He made me feel valued. He made me feel like a real person."

“When he passed away, I found myself seeking revenge against life. I was just so angry all the time. I needed to release the anger in any and every way possible. Even breathing became a challenge," expresses Hattan, adding that it took her two years to accept the undeniable reality of her father’s absence.

The onset of depression

Coping with her father’s loss, Hattan's life underwent a dramatic transformation. The once quiet and reserved child turned into a rebel, manifesting in disruptive behaviour, fights, and frequent clashes with teachers. This tumultuous period led to a continuous transfer from one school to another, fuelled by never-ending anger that seemed irresolvable.

By the age of 14, the realisation dawned upon Hattan that she was a teenager navigating life without the presence of a father, a mother, or a family. The overwhelming sense of loss and the unravelling of her life plunged her into a deep depression, with no one available to share her struggles.

Turning to writing as a cathartic outlet, Hattan began documenting her emotions in a book she aspires to publish soon. “In the pages of my book, I described my father’s death as the loss of a protective shield. The pain was so intense that it felt as if my entire skin had been torn apart and every emotion would now penetrate deep into my bones. My father had been my protective shield.”

“I tried everything, from cooking to painting to dancing—every conceivable hobby—but nothing helped me,” she reflects on her desperate attempts to cope with the grief and emotional upheaval.

During her high school years, it became evident that Hattan had spiralled into a deep depression, yet none of her family members were aware of her struggles. When they did notice, their reactions were far from understanding. “Instead of empathising with my pain, they questioned my actions, asking if I was sick or foolish to harm myself. Their lack of understanding made me even more miserable,” says Hattan.

Self-harm and suicide

To Hattan, it seemed as though her family desired a ‘normal’ girl, who would grow up to get married, take care of the kids, and lead a typical life. “They wanted a traditional girl with long hair, dressed in lovely clothes, with a cute demeanour. But I wasn't that girl," says Hattan. "I remember I went to the bathroom one day and cut off my long, curly hair, with frustration. I wanted to do something crazy. I wanted to live my life on my own terms.

Her family’s reactions, often dismissive, questioned her femininity making her feel “strange, weird, as if something was wrong with me". "My existence seemed insignificant. All of this led me to self-harm. If you see me in everyday life, you'll notice numerous scars on my hands," says the fighter. And with no sense of home, family, or belonging, Hattan confesses, she eventually succumbed to her darkest thoughts. “I attempted suicide three times in the final year of high school.”

“I internalised the blame for everything, including my parents’ divorce and their passing away. The self-blame reached a point where I started contemplating why I hadn’t passed away with my parents. But God had other plans for me and thankfully, none of those attempts succeeded," says Hattan.

Solace in sports

Diagnosed with clinical depression, Hattan was put under medication to manage her symptoms but eventually decided to discontinue the medicines and take matters into her own hands. “I was convinced that neither medication nor the support of doctors, family, or friends could truly help me. It was a personal journey between myself and my faith.”

After turbulent teenage years marked by rebellion and self-harm, the road to healing directed Hattan to the world of martial arts. Moving out of her family’s house, she rediscovered her childhood fascination towards the world of WWE. “Ever since I was young, I always admired figures like John Cena. I wished to be as strong as them, to be capable of defending myself against bullying, family issues, and any challenges that came my way.”

Though, it was the passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali that sparked her curiosity about real combat sports, leading her to discover MMA, adds Hattan. "When he passed away, it was all over the news. Especially his contibutions as a Muslim fighter. That's when I realised that there was this sport where you could actually fight and not stage fights."

Eager to find out more, she stumbled upon the Instagram profile of Abdullah Al Qahtani, the 25-year-old Saudi MMA fighter making strides in the sport. "I started seeing all these videos of him and ended up asking him questions about what MMA was. I found myself being drawn to the sport. He suggested I go to the gym and give it a try myself."

That marked the beginning of Hattan's journey. “I will never forget the first time I stepped into a gym,” says Hattan. “The atmosphere was overwhelming. It felt like I had entered an entirely different world, disconnected from reality. It was buzzing with energy, people in training outfits, Muay Thai shorts, MMA gear, hand wraps. I was in awe. I wanted to know more and that’s how it all started.”

Engaging in combat sports not only introduced Hattan to a supportive community but also played a crucial role in restoring her emotional and mental well-being. “I always remind myself that without God and without my martial arts training, I would still be stuck in deep depression. Overcoming it would’ve been impossible for me.”

Road ahead

Hattan's journey goes beyond personal triumphs. Her dedication and resilience in combat sports has paved the way for her historic signing with the PFL, in a world that often pigeonholes women rather than celebrating their individuality. “Every human being is born different, we shouldn’t try to force them all into the same mould. It took me a long time to truly understand this. Earlier, I thought I was ‘weird’ but now I see myself as unique, similar to a diamond surrounded by a sea of glass,” says Hattan.

Acknowledging the progress in women's sports in Saudi Arabia, she adds, “Over the last two years, there has been significant movement in this area and that is a great sign that people are celebrating the uniqueness of women.”

When asked how she feels about her recent feat, she responds, “I’m a little nervous to see how Saudi Arabia will respond to the news”. Though confident that the country will take pride in her achievements, she adds, “I’m very excited to see the response from my teammates, my coach. I do also hope that my family feels proud of me, despite our lack of communication in the past year. I hold no bitterness or sorrow towards them.”

Through her journey, the young MMA fighter wishes that more and more women are able to tap into their inner strength and resilience, instead of seeking it externally. “I can embody the qualities of being kind, loving, soft, while also being a strong and fierce fighter when the need arises. I believe in breaking the mould and showing the world that women can embrace both aspects ­­— the gentle and the fierce, not just within the confines of the [MMA] cage but in the broader scope of life, too.”

Promoting open conversations, reducing stigma, and providing support are essential in fostering mental well-being across all generations. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, it's advisable to seek professional assistance and support.

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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