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The rose among the thorns: Middle East's lone Arab female martial artist

Lebanon is home to a growing number of mixed martial artists - mostly men - but one woman is packing the punches as the first Arab female fighter.

BEIRUT: Martial arts have their roots in Asia but they are taking hold in the Middle East. Lebanon is home to a growing number of mixed martial artists - mostly men - but one woman is packing the punches as the first Arab female fighter.

Mixed martial artist Rachel Abou Abdallah is proud to admit she punches above her weight. At first glance, the petite brunette may not look like a fighter but as soon as she steps into the ring, it is a different story. "When I walk in a ring or in a cage, any fighter can tell you it is the best feeling in the world - the adrenaline rush, the emotions. When I fight I feel more alive than any other moment in my life," she said.

Rachel is the first and only female fighter in the Arab world. She recently became the first Arab woman to participate in the World Mixed Martial Arts Championships. Rachel trains for 25 hours per week and her next goal is to go to Europe where she will be able to train with more experienced fighters and eventually take part in bigger competitions.

Michael Amer, Rachel's coach, noticed Rachel's talent as soon as she walked through the door of his gym a year ago. "My first impression when I saw her at the Lebanese Muay Thai Championship, she was fighting and thought she was very aggressive. Rachel is very dedicated and she is one of my best students,” he said.

Michael is confident Rachel has a bright future ahead of her, but succeeding in a male-dominated sport is not easy, especially in Lebanon's deeply patriarchal society. "My mom is very scared for me,’ said Rachel. “When I come home with big bruises all over she asks me to stop because this is not the way a woman should look like. But then she supported it in the end. She understood that this is a sport that I love so it's part of me. I can't stop."

But Rachel has managed to win the respect of her male peers through perseverance and hard work. "Rachel is a special kind of girl. She trains like a machine. She is very tough. She surprised us all," said George Sahyouni, a muay thai fighter.

Rachel's ambitions do not end in the gym. She wants to make a name for herself as an architect and as a martial artist. Whatever obstacles she faces in both careers, she will put up a good fight.