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As Hanifa Yousoufi set a record for Afghan women climbers this month, she confronted a new challenge: going public, and striking a balance between serving as an example of what Afghan women can achieve and not becoming the target of ultraconservative elements. Ms. Yousoufi and her fellow women climbers of Ascend, a nonprofit organization, kept details of her summiting of Mt. Noshaq, Afghanistan’s tallest mountain, quiet until it was complete. While life has changed significantly for women since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, many conservative and male chauvinist views persist – as do honor killings and even poisoning of water supplies to girls’ schools. Yet growing numbers of women work in the police and security forces, and women attend university in record numbers. Even so, choosing to scale mountains is rare. “So Hanifa has earned respect from men from all over Afghanistan that just plants a little seed in people’s minds that she is worthy of respect,” says Marina LeGree, the founder of Ascend. “Afghans … need hope and inspiration, and Hanifa is going to embody that because she … was not handed anything. That’s going to resonate with other women.”
At the summit of Afghanistan’s tallest mountain, the Afghan woman climber can hardly keep hold of her country’s flag in the fierce wind – much less control her unbridled joy at her monumental achievement.
But Hanifa Yousoufi’s smile glows as the last rays of sunset illuminate, far below, a horizon of snow-capped mountains and clouds, as evident in an online video. Only two other Afghans, both men, can lay claim to the same achievement. But even as Ms. Yousoufi entered the alpine record books on Aug. 10 as the first Afghan woman to summit Mt. Noshaq, which towers at 24,580 feet in the country's northeast, she joined the equally rarefied ranks of Afghan women role models trying to change a conservative society known more for restricting women’s rights and for honor killings than for female empowerment.
“I was doing this for all Afghan women,” says Yousoufi in a video interview from Kabul.
Now the 24-year-old Yousoufi and her fellow women climbers of the nonprofit organization Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics face a new challenge: going public, and striking a safe and effective balance between serving as inspirational examples of what Afghan women can achieve, while not also becoming targets of ultra-conservative elements such as the Taliban.
The women of Ascend have largely labored in secret since the group's founding in early 2015. They have aimed to avoid dangerous, unwanted attention in a country where high-profile women like television presenters are often threatened with death by the Taliban, or even male members of their own families.
So the Ascend team kept details of this climb quiet until it was complete. Still, security concerns from Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict meant they had to make last-minute changes. At one point, the remote airstrip where they were scheduled to land was shut down due to a Taliban attack in the next district.
“I am a role model for other Afghan women, [because] in these conditions it is not very secure for Afghan women to go to the mountains, and I do it – I can show to the women that everything is possible,” says Neki Haidari, an 18-year-old member of the Noshaq team who did not reach the summit.
“Another woman, maybe she is not a mountaineer, but she is doing some other activities and she can [be inspired to] do it in this society,” says Ms. Haidari.
The Ascend program is not just about team training sessions five days a week. Besides physical fitness and climbing techniques, there are classroom courses in leadership, conflict resolution, being role models, and even outreach tactics like giving speeches. These are all aimed at empowering Afghan women and changing minds.
But crucial to inspiring their fellow women is awareness in the wider community about what they have conquered. Noshaq is the second-highest mountain the Hindu Kush range. And while not so technically challenging, its altitude is daunting. It is 4,000 feet higher than Denali in Alaska, the tallest peak in North America.
“When we started our activities, we tried not to make it so public, and not to be in Afghan media,” says Shegufa Bayat, another 18-year-old Noshaq climber who did not summit. The climbers recall visiting one location for training in 2016: Local residents threw stones at them.
“Now that we are getting public, we have this fear of being targeted,” says Ms. Bayat, as the other two nod agreement. But they are undeterred, and insist on using their full names when the Noshaq expedition is described.
“Now we have made a story and we are the first team of Afghan women who went to Noshaq, and one of our team members made it to the top, so we don’t want to keep it a secret,” says Bayat. “We don’t want to hide it – we want to tell to the people. Now we want to share it.”
Beyond the burqa
Before the US military toppled the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women were allowed outside the home only when entirely covered in a burqa. Education for girls and outside work for women was banned.
While life has changed significantly for women since then, many conservative and male chauvinist views persist – as do honor killings, and even poisoning of water supplies to girls’ schools in remote districts.
Yet an increasing number of women work in the police and security forces, and women hold many jobs and attend university in record numbers. But even among Afghanistan’s most ground-breaking women, choosing to scale mountains is a rare path.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why mountaineering instead of, like, basketball? Or something cheaper, like soccer?’ ” says Marina LeGree, the founder of Ascend, and a lifelong sportswoman from Washington State.
“It’s the symbolism, and that’s why we always wanted Noshaq,” says Ms. LeGree. “People respect a climb and a summit. People who don’t know anything about climbing register that it’s really high, and it’s really difficult, and whoever has done it has really suffered and worked hard, and done something the vast majority of human beings can’t or won’t do.”
“So Hanifa has earned respect from men from all over Afghanistan that just plants a little seed in people’s minds that she is worthy of respect, and that she is physically capable,” says LeGree.
“We’re not trying to turn all Afghan women into mountaineers, and most women who hear about this aren’t going to be able to do the things Hanifa is doing,” she says. “But they are going to have that seed planted in their minds, too, that one of their own did it – and that it’s possible for them. And the power of that translates into their own lives.”
Ascend is a nonprofit that accepts about 25 new would-be women climber applicants a year, which usually whittle down to 15 to 20 for the two-year program. Funding comes from a range of individual donors and a few small family foundations, as well as the Danish Embassy in Kabul. Some 16 self-funded volunteers, including a professional guide and a professional trail runner, have given instruction and provided some equipment.
Before creating Ascend, LeGree had worked five years in Afghanistan in places like the lawless northeastern Kunar province and other spots where “pretty nasty things happened.” She says that gave her a “very real” appreciation of the risks.
The climbers have only slowly begun to publicize their efforts locally, as they search for a balance between the pros and cons of publicity. They decided only in recent days that their names should be made public, says LeGree, after returning home from the mountain during a Muslim religious holiday, and thinking it through again.
“If we don’t tell this story, it doesn’t have anywhere near the impact,” says LeGree.
“[They] fully recognize that, they want to be role models, and they want to own their achievements,” she says.
The longest journey
The climbers agree. Perhaps the longest journey has been made by Yousoufi, who was unable to do a single sit-up when she first joined Ascend three years ago. A divorcée who had been married at 15, she proved to be determined, had remarkable stamina, and quickly grew strong.
Those traits helped Yousoufi during the most difficult moments on the mountain.
“When I was going up, I felt like I was falling down,” the climber says, of a particularly steep face that required ropes between Camp 2 and Camp 3. Encouraged by non-Afghan guides, she made it through.
Coming down was also a struggle, and she recalls rappelling down the steep rock faces, afraid that her hands were too cold to keep hold of the rope that was controlling the speed of her descent.
“I thought I was going to die,” the climber says, with a grin.
“It’s a time that Afghans in general, and women in particular, really need hope and inspiration, and Hanifa is going to embody that because she is such a person who is not privileged, who was not handed anything,” says LeGree. “She just earned everything, and that’s going to resonate with other women.”