Nor “Phoenix” Diana on stereotypes and becoming the world’s first female hijabi wrestling champion

I first heard of Malaysian pro-wrestler Nor “Phoenix” Diana sometime in July or August of this year. A friend showed me a headline that I can’t recall anymore, but what stood out were the words “world’s first female hijabi champion.”

At that time, the 19-year-old wrestler went viral because she’d just won the Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MyPW) Wrestlecon Championship title, the first woman to do so. “The first time I [wrestled with a hijab on], I didn’t really get that much attention. It was just until I won the championship,” Diana tells me in the backseat of a car while on her way to her next media shoot in the Philippines. She was recently in the country to face Crystal at “Philippine Wrestling Revolution (PWR) Live: Vendetta.” (More on this in a bit)

Diana’s interest in the sport started as a 14-year-old when watching WWE shows with her brothers. When Diana turned 16, she was already thinking about what she wanted to do after graduating high school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, but I knew that I was obsessed with wrestling,” she says. “So I found MyPW on Facebook and contacted Shaukat on Instagram [to start training.]”

Her coach is Ayez Shaukat Fonseka Farid (ring name: Shaukat), a pro-wrestler and the founder of MyPW. When Diana started training with the company, she said it was tough because she never did any sports prior to this and Shaukat “didn’t treat us females any different. If the guys had to do 200 push-ups, so did the girls.”

Shaukat being a proud coach when Phoenix won the MyPW Wrestlecon Championship | Photo by Asyraf Rasid

As for Diana’s parents, her mom was worried because she didn’t want her daughter to get injured. “She knows I’ve never done any sports and she knows I’m small (Diana is five-feet tall),” Diana says. After watching one of her matches, her mom is now supportive of her passion.

When Diana debuted as Phoenix in MyPW three years ago, she was wearing a red mask befitting her ring name. In an interview with The Wrestling-Wrestling Podcast, Shaukat said he put the mask on her at first to help her overcome her shyness. He was also surprised to see her transform into a different person when she entered the ring.

Diana officially unmasked in December last year after losing a “Mask vs Pride” match against Luna. This sparked the beginning of what would become the biggest year of her career.

Fighting stereotypes and the road to becoming champion

Diana admits that she was bashed for being a Muslim woman in wrestling, yet she’s not affected by the negative comments anymore. “I’ve been doing this for four years now, and they only critiqued me when they found out I was a Muslim girl wearing a hijab behind the mask,” she says.

According to The Guardian, Malaysia is a largely tolerant Islamic country, but it’s still religiously conservative compared to other Southeast Asian countries. Although Malaysiakini notes that the country is now making progress in pushing for gender equality and giving women and girls a safer environment.

Diana also had to deal with comments saying that women shouldn’t be in wrestling. Even though wrestling is a male-dominated sport with a mostly male fanbase, there have always been female wrestlers who’ve made waves in various wrestling companies globally, including the Philippines.

“Wrestling isn’t just for the guys, girls can also do it too,” says Diana.

Despite the criticism, Diana continued pursuing her passion and working hard. Then in July of this year, she faced three men for the MyPW Wrestlecon Championship and won the title.

The news spread like wildfire. Diana did TV interview in Malaysia, and also interviews with international publications like ESPN, the South China Morning Post, and AFP. Her Instagram following also grew from 10,000 in July to over 39,000 as of writing today.

“I didn’t know I was going to win the championship, and after the match I literally cried. My journey in wrestling is very tough—financial issues, struggling to balance between family, wrestling, work, and friends,” says Diana. “They didn’t believe it, but I believed in me. And the fans really helped with supporting me in improving myself.”

Losing the title

When I interviewed Diana last Friday, Nov. 22, I obviously didn’t know that she was going to lose her championship title two days later.

Diana defended her title for the second time in the Philippines at “PWR Live: Vendetta” last Sunday, Nov. 24. Her match against Crystal was a battle of talent and strength. When Diana lost, all of us in our section were shocked that she’d lost the title, and also happy that Crystal won her second international championship. (The first being India’s WIN: Dangal ke Soorma women’s championship)

But Diana’s spirits were still high when I saw her after the show. “I underestimated her (Crystal) but the outcome was great. If you asked me who I’m going to give up the title to, I would give it to Crystal because she really deserves it. She’s also a hardworking person and I’m really glad she won it from me,” she says. “I really hope she becomes a good champion. We’ll meet again someday.”

Diana may have lost the championship but it didn’t squash her dreams one bit. She tells me she wants to make pro-wrestling her full-time job (she currently works as a clinical assistant in a private hospital) and get the chance to perform abroad. “I hope that I can get more exposure by traveling in other countries. My current goal now is to compete in Europe or Japan because there are more female wrestlers there. Maybe go to WWE, at least for one match.”

Looking back at what Nor “Phoenix” Diana has accomplished at 19, one can’t help but feel proud of this young woman who broke the glass ceiling in her own way. She has inspired many young girls in Malaysia, especially those who are wearing hijabs. “Back then, I was a really shy girl. [I’ve learned that] if you really have the passion and heart to do something, you should really go for it. If you don’t try, you’ll never know if you’re going to make it,” says Diana.

“Maybe there’s a Muslim girl out there who thinks that a hijab is going to stop her from doing what she loves. But for me, any girl or woman can do whatever they want despite what everyone says.”

 

Photo by Calvin Alexi via Nor “Phoenix” Diana’s Instagram account

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