Afghan girls kick down old barriers
From the corner of a Kabul basement, next door to a barber shop, come high-pitched and most unusual sounds. A small posse of Afghan girls shout "heey-ya!" as they practice karate jabs, kicks, and punches.Skip to next paragraph
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The eldest of the bunch, Nargas Rahimi, returned to her Afghan homeland last year after growing up in Iran. "I saw that Afghan women didn't have the faintest idea about exercise. So I came here to act as an example for Afghan girls and to help them take part in Afghan society," she says.
With the help of several new Kabul fitness clubs (with women-only hours) like the Khusal Khanmeena gym, Afghan girls and women are getting their first taste of sports. Girls' schools here are also introducing athletics, and the women's Olympic committee is now training some 1,500 Afghan girls to compete abroad. Last summer, for the first time in the nation's history, two women competed in the Olympics.
After years of being cloistered in their homes during Taliban times, women are now looking to private gyms and sports clubs as one of the few pathways opening up for women and girls trying to reemerge into a society that remains highly segregated - and dangerous. Two weeks ago, a woman was stoned to death for adultery.
"Sport can be used as a vehicle for creating a safe space, an entrance into the public sphere," says Martha Brady, a program associate with the Population Council in New York who has worked on bringing sports to girls in Egypt. In many countries, she says, "you can see an 8-year-old girl outside kicking a ball around. You don't see her when she's 13 because she's sequestered at home."
In Afghanistan - a nation where women are still seldom seen in public - there are few socially acceptable public places for women outside of schools or universities, and even fewer facilities for sports.
This is slowly changing as more girls head back to school. So far, 1,600 girls schools have opened, but according to UNICEF, on average 60 percent of girls' under 11 - more than 1 million - are still not attending lessons. Out of some 5 million children enrolled in schools nationwide, girls made up just 35 percent, the World Bank said in its latest report on education in Afghanistan.
Robina Muqimyar's world changed in 2003 when officials at her school in Kabul gathered together her classmates and asked for volunteers for a new basketball team. "I was the first one to raise my hand," the self-confident teen says.
Her boldness paid off when her athletic gifts were noticed by the country's fledgling women's Olympic committee, which offered to train her as a runner. In the 2004 Olympics, Ms. Muqimyar ran the 100-meter dash as one of the country's two female athletes at the games.
Emboldened by Muqimyar, more young girls are signing up for international competition in 14 different sports including football, volleyball, basketball, and the martial arts. Most are middle class, and many are returned refugees.
"The five years of Taliban rule hurt the girls psychologically," says Shamsulhayat Alam, head of Afghanistan's women's Olympic committee. "Two years after the Taliban, we were not able to get even one girl who was interested in playing sports."
That's now changing. The girls travel internationally to compete, with upcoming trips to Japan and Iran. The girls are also sent to schools across Afghanistan to work as trainers and, more importantly, to spread their "can do" attitude.