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Afghan Sportswomen Fight for More Than Medals

Despite numerous hurdles, women are picking up increasing numbers of wins in international sporting competitions.
By Khan Mohammad Danishju

Kabul’s stadium became a global symbol of Taleban brutality in the 1990s, when it was the scene of public executions and amputations. More than a decade on, the stadium is being for sporting purposes – and by women as well as men.

When IWPR visited recently, 24-year-old Salma Husseini was coaching a class of 80 girls in taekwondo, who followed her every move.

Despite severe shortages of sports facilities and equipment, and traditional restrictions on women playing a role in public life, Afghanistan’s female athletes have brought home some 100 gold, silver and bronze medals from regional and international tournaments in the last two years.

Husseini first began studying taekwondo, a Korean martial art, at the age of 14 in Iran, where she was living as a refugee. She has won bronze and silver medals outside Afghanistan, but has she stopped competing because she is now a coach for the national Olympic team.

While success in sports may be a reflection of broader improvements in the position of women, Husseini says her protégés get little credit for their achievements and are ignored by Afghan media.

“When the men win medals, the media promote them a lot, but they don’t do the same for the girls,” she said. “I would urge media outlets to do more to promote female heroes so that women in this country feel strong.”

Hamida Omid is another taekwondo star – in September she won a silver medal in India, adding to her three previous bronze medals earned abroad.

Omid believes it is up to women to stand up for themselves. In her words, “They should tear asunder the chains of imprisonment and secure their rights.”

Omid enjoys the full support of her husband, Mohammad Mobin. If she is away competing, he looks after the children and does the housework. Some of his friends disapprove, but he ignores them.

“When I hear about my wife’s achievements, I don’t care what opinion others may have,” he said. “I am extremely happy to have a wife like Hamida.”

Zohra, a 19 year-old sportswoman who attends a private taekwondo club in Kabul, would like to see more government support for female sport. Sportswomen are short of decent facilities, clothing, coaches and transport.

“The national Olympic committee should consider creating special gyms for girls all over Kabul, but the committee has not helped athletes at all so far,” Zohra said.

It is not all down to Afghanistan having a cash-strapped government. The finance ministry said in a report earlier this year that the national Olympic committee had failed to spend 50 per cent of the budget allocated to it.

Nevertheless, the Olympic committee has established a women’s gym in the western city of Herat, and Kabul should be getting one soon, Malalai Daqiq, head of the committee’s female sports section, said.

“Despite the problems, we are optimistic because female sports are developing in the provinces,” she said, noting that Herat was a stronghold.

Although many Afghans believe female sports are sacreligious, Keramatollah Sediqi, head of Islamic guidance at the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs, says women can engage in sport as long as suitable clothing is worn.

Many conservative-minded Afghans, however, believe this kind of activity goes against everything their culture stands for.

Shawali, a 55-year-old man from the Khair Khana district of Kabul, said it was morally corrupting for women to take part in sport, and their menfolk were “gutless” for allowing them to.

He said it was wrong for women to be out and about without being chaperoned by a family member, and suggested that other men would be able to see the contours of their figures when they exercised.

Another man, Mir Waisoddin, a 50-year-old shopkeeper from the Qala-e Fatullah district, offered a completely different perspective. Women had suffered enough under the Taleban, he said, and should be allowed to practice sports and take care of themselves.

“Let the world know that Afghan women, too, can win championships,” he said. “God didn’t create everything just for men.”

Raisa, a female schoolteacher, sees sport as part of a wider battle for women’s rights.

“If we give in these problems, we will be imprisoned within the four walls of our homes,” she said.

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Afghanistan.

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