Brave steps taken to advance women’s sport in Afghanistan

Recently, journalist Sune Engel Rasmussan wrote of a woman who ran a marathon. There is nothing very special about that, I hear you say: women all over the world run gruelling marathons all the time, and continue to do so prolifically. Yet for some women, the ability to run even outside of their house is a liberty they are denied.

Such was the case of Zainab. Determined to run a marathon with the help of the group ‘Free to Run’, Zainab set about training for the marathon by jogging monotonous laps around her small backyard. If that did not require enough willpower, facing the outside incredulity and abuse whilst running certainly did.

Whilst running the unofficial marathon route from Paghman Valley to Kabul, Zainub and her two co-runners were pelted with stones by children on the streets, while adults condoned the abuse by shouting: “Prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam.”

Even men who appeared to be supportive on the route accused her of cheating; ironically, they did not see the hypocrisy of riding motorbikes themselves for part of the course. Such ingrained cultural belief that women should stay at home because it is fundamental to Islam that they do so severely hinders any woman who wishes to participate in sport; any who dare oppose this face real danger.

Whilst still a child, Zainab participated for a time in a girl’s taekwondo club. Yet, even this was deemed unsuitable for girls, and the local police shut it down soon after. Religious fundamentalism can easily scare women into submitting to the roles ascribed to them: the recent shocking killing of Farkhunda, a female teacher of the Qur’an accused of blasphemy for disputing a cleric’s point of view, reminds women like Zainab that there is a real danger in appearing to oppose the normal role for women within Islamic tradition.

Yet, while sport is still largely believed to be unsuitable for women on religious grounds, the very fact that Zainab was able to participate in the unofficial marathon at all is promising for fledgling acceptance of Afghan women who want to participate in sport.

Whilst passing through Bamiyan, Zainab was able to run without malicious abuse. Herders and farmers passively accepted their athleticism, whilst children ran excitedly with them rather than throwing stones at her.

The completion of the endurance event gave Zainab a confidence to be an independent woman, applying what she learnt from the race to life: she stated that: “Everything is in your mind. You don’t have to train a lot. I didn’t have training but I have done it.”

Her mother is supportive of her athleticism, but admitted that she does worry about her. In contrast, her brother is able to use the freedoms of university in Germany to participate in sport while escaping the abuse she faces as a consequence of gender.

Evidently, there is still huge progress to be made in parts of the world where religious extremism and fundamentalism is dominant. Women should be able to run outside of their backyard without fear of being condemned for ‘destroying religion’, or even worse, fearing for their lives.

Zainab may prove to be the front runner for Afghan women’s sport, providing promise for future generations who want to reconcile religious fundamentalism, progressively incorporating more women into sport in turbulent countries.

Image courtesy of USACE People

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