KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — 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.
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.
"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.
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.