Afghan girls kick down old barriers
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"It has energized me in terms of getting more studies done," says Muqimyar. "I want to have more promotion in my life." The term "promotion" doesn't refer to a Nike sneaker deal but is often used to describe a desire to be educated and independent.Skip to next paragraph
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Women have made some advances in the past four years in Afghanistan, particularly in politics. The new governor of Bamiyan is a woman, as are three government ministers. A quarter of the seats in the new parliament's upper house must be female.
These gains, however, have done little to change women's social roles, partly because even women with some political influence are reluctant to push for rapid social change.
"We shouldn't be in a hurry for getting promotion because the people are just going to be against it. The work that has been done so far, it has been enough," says Safia Siddiqi, gender adviser to the ministry of rural rehabilitation.
Still, some women are cautiously pushing the boundaries in small ways. More women's faces are visible on the streets. Driving schools for women have opened in Kabul, and recently in Herat. The capital now has several women's shelters. In April, the first class of 138 midwives graduated with the hopes of curbing the worst maternal and child mortality rates in the world.
"We cannot turn a blind eye to these changes, but I think these changes are quite tiny," says Parween Hakeem with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. "And at the same time we cannot limit the map of Afghanistan to Kabul. These issues are only related to Kabul.
Ms. Hakeem points to the stoning of a woman in Faizabad as indicative of the "fundamentalist" atmosphere in Afghanistan. Media reports say the woman was accused of adultery by her husband who had returned from an extended time abroad. Often such women are left with little money to fend for themselves while their husbands are away. It remains highly difficult for an Afghan woman to divorce, and even harder to remarry.
Many of the girls interviewed for this story had to overcome family objections - mostly about modesty - before taking part in sports. When Muqimyar ran at the Olympics she wore a full body suit with a hood.
Some families still prevent athletes from traveling abroad. Afghans often try to prevent female relatives from spending much time outside the home. President Hamid Karzai, widely seen as moderate on social issues, does not bring his wife to public events. The thinking goes that "if a woman takes less part in society, does not go out of the home, then she would provide more honor to her family," says Hakeem.
In the West, research has shown that American high school girls who participate in sports have better grades, fewer discipline problems, and stronger college aspirations than their non-athletic peers. Female athletes also tend to have higher self-esteem and a more positive body image.
Some of these trends can be seen among the Afghan athletes as well. "From my time with the girls, I have noticed that these girls have become more interested in their studies. They've become more self-confident, more independent," says Ms. Alam, the Olympic coordinator.
Access to sports, however, remains very limited for both Afghan boys and girls. Most schools have no equipment. Wahidullah Ebrahimkheil, the sports procurement officer in the education ministry, says he has no budget for equipment. Instead, he recycles old equipment and gets occasional overseas donations. "Officials will come in and say they have 300 to 400 schools in their province, but we can only provide them with seven or eight balls," he says.