Nor Diana is a quiet 20-year-old Muslim woman from Malaysia. At 4-foot-11 (152cm), she didn’t stand out at the local hospital where she worked as a clinical assistant. But in a wrestling ring, she lets her actions do the talking.
Dressed in a black costume with flame-patterned trousers, Nor smashes stereotypes and aims to empower women as “Phoenix”—the first hijab-wearing pro-wrestler in the majority-Muslim country. And in July last year, “Phoenix” marked another milestone, defeating five men to become the first female winner in July of the six-year-old Malaysia Pro Wrestling (MyPW) Wrestlecon championship. Her victory attracted worldwide attention after a retweet by U.S. pro wrestler Mustafa Ali of a news article about her victory went viral.
Nor learned her first wrestling moves grappling with her brother in her family’s kitchen in Kuala Lumpur, says it was videogames that inspired her to start wrestling. She joined MyPW in 2015 with the support of her family, and a few months later competed in her first match.
Having never seen a wrestler in a hijab before and afraid what fans might think, Nor donned a full, red-and-gold hood inspired by the ring name her coach, Ayez Shaukat Fonseka Farid, gave her because of her unwillingness to give up—Phoenix. In 2018, Nor removed her mask after losing a match to reveal her hijab, which she wears during training and matches. “When I took off my mask I had mixed feelings,” she says. “I felt sad because the mask was part of Phoenix, but I also felt a bit of relief because now I can show my face, and the fans can see the real Phoenix.”
Following her MyPW triumph, Nor quit her job as a clinical assistant at a local hospital to train last November in London with UK women’s promotion Pro Wrestling: EVE. While she’s been criticized in Malaysia’s online community for fighting—and for her tight costumes— her involvement in the sport has sparked growing interest in wrestling among young women in Malaysia. “I want to inspire women not just in hijab but women in general,” say Nor. “Nothing can stop us as long as we have passion and believe in ourselves.”
This year, Nor stands tall with several other sports stars on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list who are breaking barriers and making history. They are joined by a variety of exceptional young people, from gamers to actors and K-pop stars, as part of this year’s Entertainment & Sports category.
In Japan, Hiyori Kon is fighting to change the rules of one of the world’s oldest sports: sumo wrestling. The 22-year-old is already one of the top amateur sumo wrestlers in the country, but because she is a woman, Kon is barred from competing professionally.
In 2018, she was the subject of a Netflix documentary, Little Miss Sumo, which highlighted her story as she fights sexism against women competing in the ancient sport.
Kon is trying to move the ancient Japanese sport in a more progressive direction. She already made progress this year, becoming the first ever female sumo wrestler at Aisin, a club known for its strong men’s sumo team. “This, in itself, promises to be a source of great pride for me, representing as it does, achieving something I thought impossible as a child,” Kon says.
23-year-old Australian Ashleigh Barty also recently made a big leap in her sport as she became the world No. 1 female tennis player. She is the second Australian woman to be ranked top tennis player in the world after Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1976. So far, Barty has won eight Women’s Tennis Association singles titles, including a Grand Slam at the 2019 French Open….