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Sticking to a strict diet, pumping iron for hours every day and finding sponsors is enough work for most competitive bodybuilders. But for Farah Malhass, these challenges are only part of the struggle to succeed in the sweat-drenched world of international fitness.

The 26-year-old from Jordan, billed as the first born-and-bred Middle Eastern woman to enter a global bodybuilding competition, has had to endure rejection by much of the sporting community in her homeland, the disapproval of her family and even death threats from conservative Jordanians who believe a woman doesn't belong in such a sport.

Undeterred, she took part in her first international amateur competition Saturday in Mississauga and plans to move to Canada to keep training toward her goal of going pro as a "figure" bodybuilder - one who focuses on developing a well-toned body rather than adding bulk.

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"I want to be good enough to show Arab women that you can follow your dreams," she said.

A member of a prominent Jordanian family - her grandfather once commanded the country's air force - Ms. Malhass has been interested in bodybuilding since her teens, but didn't get serious about it until she shed much of her body fat after a hernia operation. She determined to regain the weight as muscle.

Without the help of a trainer, Ms. Malhass put herself on a diet of egg yolks and boiled chicken breast, and started going to the gym twice a day. Last year, she quit her job with the United Nations, where she helped Iraqi refugees immigrate overseas, to focus full time on shaping up.

With no financial support from her well-heeled family and unable to find sponsors in Jordan, Ms. Malhass said she financed her endeavors herself, partly through savings from her job and partly by selling her car.

She's also had to deal with threats on her life.

"You go and read the online comments, men say 'she should have her head chopped off;' they say I am the apocalypse, they say I am mentally ill and I need to see a doctor," she said. "I'm sad that in this day and age, people still think like that."

The unwanted attention has forced her to keep a low profile in Amman, spending most of her time at home or the gym.

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Last week, Ms. Malhass made the 25-hour trek to Canada to take part in the World Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation's World Championship. She failed to place, in a category of 70 women, but said the trip was worth it to make connections in the world of bodybuilding.

It also helped firm up plans for her future: she intends to move to Calgary to start training with Nathan Harewood, who has trained other prominent female bodybuilders. Within a year or two, she hopes to go pro.

"All the support I've had is from Canada," she said. "[It's nice]to get out and be surrounded by people who are going to support you, not bring you down."

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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