When Iraq's female cycling team snatched bronze and silver medals at a landmark Pan-Arab race, it was thanks to athletes from the Kurdish region in the north.
The country's toughest female competitors, its best-equipped facilities and most experienced coaches are not in the capital Baghdad but in the Kurdish-majority northern region. And the three medals won by the Iraqi female cyclists in September at the tournament in Algeria were seen as proof of this sporting prowess in a region that has governed itself since 1991.
The team earned a bronze in the relay race, where three of its four cyclists were Kurdish, and also scooped up a bronze and a silver in individual events. Decades ago, all of Iraq's 18 provinces had thriving female athletic scenes, with active clubs in different sports. But the 1980s saw a string of violent conflicts begin, followed by an international embargo that brought development projects to a screeching halt and the rise of militias. Those factors, combined with growing conservatism in parts of Iraqi society, all chipped away at sports culture for women. However in the north, relatively isolated from these trends, Kurdish women have enjoyed an athletic awakening - one that Iraq's clubs and national teams are making use of now.
A female cycling team in the southern conservative city of Diwaniyah regularly poaches two Kurdish athletes from Sulaimaniyah - more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) to the north - for national and regional competitions. "They are better, and the club knows they'll help them get a better score," said Sajed Salim of Iraq's Cycling Federation. The clubs also enjoy widespread public support and are popular meeting places. "The fact that they have restaurants and recreational spaces encourages families to come support the female athletes," said Khaled Bashir, a member of Iraq's Volleyball Federation.
That popularity often translates into material support for local clubs, allowing them to pursue more training and keep improving. Elsewhere in Iraq, teams rely on funds from the Youth and Sports Ministry, which barely cover basic expenses. "There are talented athletes everywhere, but they do not emerge in the other provinces because the structures are not the same as those in [the region]," said Bashir.
The numbers speak for themselves. This year's national volleyball championship brought together "11 female Kurdish teams against four other female teams from the rest of Iraq - all of them from Baghdad," he said. Women's basketball, too, has become a hit sport in Iraq thanks to Kurdish athletes - including all-girl teams in Dohuk, Halabja and Arbil. The relative calm enjoyed by the region has contributed to their advancement, said the head of Iraq's Basketball Federation, Hussein al-Omeidi. "That stability in the region's towns when it comes to daily life and to security is vital to the athletic excellence of our female teams," Omeidi told AFP.