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No Sporting Chance for Women

Aspiring female athletes find they are hamstrung by lack of funds and a conservative society that disapproves of their participation.
By Hafizullah Gardesh

Lima Azimi’s photograph was flashed around the world when she took her place on the starting blocks in the 100-metre sprint at the recent World Athletic Championships in Paris.

But the 23-year-old, who became Afghanistan’s most famous modern-day sportswoman despite finishing last, has been sorely disappointed by her reception back home.

“I was honoured and appreciated so much in France, I will never forget that,” Azimi told IWPR.

“But when I came back to Afghanistan, our Olympic committee didn’t even welcome me, nor was I encouraged in terms of money or verbal encouragement. It is very much to be regretted.”

However, given Afghanistan’s lack of sporting facilities, and the conservative attitudes which still limit opportunities for women even after the fall of the oppressive Taleban regime, perhaps she should not have been surprised by this reaction.

Shamsul Hayat Alam, who is in charge of social sports for women in the National Olympic Committee of Afghanistan, points out that when women’s races were held recently in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium – before all-female spectators – most of the competitors were forced to run barefoot due to lack of running shoes.

Gul Mohammad, the Olympic committee’s director of foreign relations, added that while they were proud of Azimi’s achievement, there were simply no funds available – since financial incentives for athletes had to come out of the committee’s own pockets.

Aspiring women athletes also have to brave the disapproval of some sectors of the community who are firmly opposed to females taking part in sport – even if it is under the tutelage of other women in well-shielded facilities.

Some reject the very thought of women competing. “These sportswomen should not contribute to the embarrassment of their families and nation,” said 50-year-old Muharram Ali, a male resident of Sara-e-Ghazni in west Kabul. “Women are born for the home and should do housework

Opportunities for women have not always been so limited. After 1979, under the Communist regime, sportswomen excelled in volleyball, basketball, athletics and gymnastics, often competing in front of mixed-sex spectators.

However, the regimes which followed put an end to this, leaving few opportunities for women to enjoy sports - and certainly not in public.

Men were also adversely affected, as the hardline Taleban regime’s insistence that men grow big beards, and a ban on the wearing of shorts, restricted their ability to compete at an international level.

Afghanistan was only readmitted by the International Olympic Committee and the International Amateur Athletics Federation this year, nearly two years after the Taleban were toppled.

Azimi herself is frank that she was only selected to go to Paris at the last minute because the event organisers insisted that the Afghan team include some women.

The English literature student only joined the Teacher Training University’s volleyball team a year ago, getting fit in the few hours allocated to women to use the institution’s gymnasium.

Before setting out for Paris she had never used starting blocks in a running race, and had not been told which distance she would be competing in.

Vaulted into such top-level competition, and hindered by a baggy tracksuit, she lagged up to 40 metres behind some of her rivals to record a far-from-world-class time of 18.37 seconds.

But for her sheer persistence, she captured the imagination of admirers around the world.

“Wherever I would go in the city people would surround me and ask for my autograph and to be photographed with me,” Azimi said wonderingly of her time in France.

However, meeting more experienced sports stars from around the world threw the difference in equipment, sports grounds and funding into glaring contrast.

Back home – and back down to earth – she is also disappointed by the extra difficulties faced by Afghan women wanting to take part in any kinds of sport.

“Most families are prejudiced and won’t allow their daughters to participate in sports. There are rigid social norms and economic problems. Another problem is the lack of female trainers to train girls.”

In the meantime, many aspiring sportswomen continue to practise alone, away from prying eyes, and without suitable equipment.

Mahboba Razaie, a young woman who teaches the popular martial art Tae Kwan Do, is gradually becoming disheartened by the lack of support.

Razaie learned the sport during the 12 years her family spent as refugees in Iran, and now instructs four women. She claims that a lack of commitment by sporting bodies, as well as conservative attitudes, have stopped many more from joining her classes.

“Some brothers and fathers feel that their daughters and women bring shame on the family by taking part in sport,” she said.

Officials say that they are trying their best in the face of such attitudes as well as a lack of funds.

The Olympic committee’s Gul Mohammad told IWPR that a number of females had already been sent abroad to compete, with one young disabled girl, Najla, competing in Ireland in June.

Mohammad Rahmati, acting director for sports at the education ministry, said that they are now actively looking at plans to encourage sport for women, including the possibility of sending ten women to Iran to train as instructors.

Hafizullah Gardesh is a staff reporter with IWPR in Kabul.

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