The boys were at it again. There were about 10 of them on the blue mats and red mats in the old multipurpose room, the place where Rima Yacoub volunteers a few hours a week to teach kids in East Amman, Jordan, the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
"When I first started, I probably had 10 of the most difficult, hyperactive, underprivileged kids in Amman," Yacoub says.
At every turn of her back, they would point fingers and make faces. But when Yacoub, a gold medalist in her category at the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Championship in April, hit the mats to show off her moves, there was silence. The boys quickly realized their teacher was not messing around.
"Now they follow me everywhere I go," Yacoub says, smiling. "They even ask me, 'Coach, can we carry your bags for you?'"
A tall, muscular woman with a waterfall of reddish hair that she ties into a long braid for training, Yacoub is one of less than 10 Jordanian women competing professionally in jiu-jitsu, a grappling-based sport where opponents work to submit each other with a variety of chokeholds and joint locks.
Yacoub became acquainted with jiu-jitsu in 2011. A lifelong athlete who previously played on Jordan's national badminton team, she was weightlifting twice a day and looking to fit more cardio into her regimen. Convinced by a friend to try a kickboxing class at a small dojo near their homes, she saw the jiu-jitsu fighters on the other side of the mats pulling each other to the ground, choking each other into semiconsciousness, and afterward sharing a laugh like two kids who got away with fighting before their parents could catch them. There were no women in that class, but she and her girlfriends stepped up and gave it a shot together.
"I was hooked the moment I stepped onto the mats," Yacoub says. "It was like I had never felt more powerful. The mats were a relief from everything else in my life -- a safe, stress-free place where it was only me and the person standing across from me."
Aside from managing a competitive schedule that includes regular travel to Europe and throughout the Middle East, Yacoub is also the partnerships and communications officer for Ruwwad Al Tanmeya, a non-governmental organization that works to empower disadvantaged communities in Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt through education and civic engagement.
On an average weekday, she will be at the gym by 6 a.m. for weightlifting, then at work until 4:30 p.m., then mixing in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu until after 9 p.m.
"Rima is very special for how she is able to train as hard as she does and also take the time to make the community better," says Nasser Faouri, the main jiu-jitsu coach at The Source MMA in Amman, Jordan, where Yacoub trains.
To the unfamiliar spectator, jiu-jitsu can look like two people in pajamas strangling each other on the ground, Faouri says. But even with a broken nose or fingers, Yacoub is still there at the gym, assisting with kids classes and welcoming new women with a smile and reassuring them that it's more fun than it looks.
While martial arts is growing in popularity in Amman, the city is culturally and developmentally divided. At times, the more privileged West Amman can seem worlds away from the daily realities of life in the East, where Yacoub crosses for work and to teach her own jiu-jitsu classes for Ruwwad. On one side of the city, it's not uncommon to see women sign up for the gym and take martial arts classes together. In East Amman, it is a different story altogether. That's where Yacoub is most determined to make a difference.
"If somebody walks in Dabouq and then goes to Jabal Jofeh, they may not believe they are still in the same city," says Dana Al Emam, a reporter for The Jordan Times who has written about the disparities in the city.
In the western part of the city, the buildings and streets are better maintained, public parks and entertainment facilities are more accessible, and schools offer extracurricular activities, including sports, that aren't as available in East Amman.
"On a deeper level, the obvious gap in development nurtures a feeling of social injustice," Al Emam says. These injustices can give rise to the alternative opportunities that extremist groups might offer. A March 2016 report from UN Women made a direct connection between women victims of gender injustices with violent radicalization.
This is the environment Yacoub knew she wanted to invest her time in when she was selected for the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program. For three weeks in October and November, she was mentored by Jill Hotchkiss, vice president of marketing and creative for Disney XD in Burbank, California. (Disney is the parent company of ESPN.)
With her mentor, she worked on a plan to create a community center for girls and women to train jiu-jitsu and self-defense following her return to Jordan. At this center, women will not only receive sports training, but also be educated about the powerful correlation between sports and empowerment.
"These women will be the true guardians," Yacoub says. "They are guarding their own futures and the futures of the ones they care about."
While progress has been made in women's rights in Jordan, rates of domestic abuse and harassment remain high. According to 2012 research by Diab Al-Badeyneh, a Jordanian sociologist who conducted the first national survey on domestic violence, family violence is both widespread and culturally accepted, with roughly half of women experiencing abuse from childhood, and more than 70 percent believing that husbands have the right to punish members of the family with physical violence.
"I have a vision for an open and healthy community with zero domestic violence," Yacoub says. "I believe we all have a responsibility to give back, a small change that can impact everything, and this is how I can make a difference."
In jiu-jitsu, Yacoub has both won and lost. But a well-known saying from one of the sport's legends, Carlson Gracie, says there is never really any losing in jiu-jitsu. You either win or you learn.
In a European match before her Abu Dhabi performance, Yacoub was forced to tap to a submission in the last 25 seconds after winning for the entire match to that point. It taught her a lesson she carries close to her heart: "In life and jiu-jitsu, you cannot take things for granted. You must keep pushing forward and never stop."
It is with this determination that she returned to Jordan earlier this month. And now every time she drives to see those kids -- the ones who went from pointing fingers to carefully listening to their teacher's every instruction -- it reminds Yacoub that even though the road ahead may not be easy, she will never give up on her mission to empower a generation of Jordanians.
Editor's note: Brian Canever is the digital content manager for the Center for Sport, Peace, & Society at the University of Tennessee, and works closely with the GSMP participants.