In 1999, a woman was executed in front of 30,000 spectators in Kabul’s Ghazi Sport stadium by the Taliban for fighting back against her abusive husband.
Eleven years later women gather in the stadium once more, but this time, they are fighting back. These women are training for the Afghanistan Women’s National Boxing Team. The fighters hope to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics where female boxing will be an Olympic sport for the first time.
Although the team is far from a shoo-in to make the Olympics, the fact that these hijab-clad women participate in sports is a triumph in and of itself. Under Taliban rule, it would it have been unfathomable for women to play sports.
One sponsor of the Afghan team, Oxfam, states that “In a country ravaged by 30 years of war and run by a conservative male-dominated society, these female boxers are Afghanistan’s most improbable ambassadors for peace.”
The courage in and outside of the ring is evident by 20-year-old Shahla Sekandari, arguably the best fighter on the team. She continues to receive threats and intimidation since returning from her bronze medal-winning performance at the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam last November. She has been repeatedly told “…Don’t do boxing, it’s not good, it’s not Islamic and it’s not for women.”
Sekandari responds by saying boxing is her choice. "It’s my life. Ninety percent of people are uneducated in Afghanistan. They think lots of negative things about women. I don’t think about these people.”
Sekandari may be her country’s best hope for a medal at the 2012 Olympics, but she has yet to receive the love, respect and admiration given to average Olympic hopefuls. Her own family has disapproved of her interest in the sport. But as she knocks out opponents in the ring, she also jabs away the reservations at home.
While some clerics continue to speak out and condemn the females boxers, their greatest opponent is lack of money. Many of the punching bags are homemade. The team lacks necessary materials and equipment.
Outside of Shahla Sekandari, very few women have had success in competitions with the typical female boxing powers of Kazakhstan, China and India. Other countries resources put Afghanistan’s team at a distinct disadvantage.
Nevertheless, with all the obstacles the team faces, these women continue to fight because it gives them hope and freedom that most women of the area have gone without.
The team has made headway, inching closer to competing in the Olympics when approval to wear hijab was granted by the International Boxing Association (IBA). The fighters must wear breast guards underneath their garments and leave their faces uncovered for more accurate score keeping by boxing judges.
This approval led several other traditionally male dominated and conservative South-Asian countries to start their own female boxing teams.
Egypt has been training women as early as 2002 and Iran’s Boxing Federation officially states the country will begin training women when they can find appropriate dress to wear. 15-year-old Ambreen ‘Beeno’ Sadiq of England has also been making waves as a potential 2016 Olympic participant.
The actions of these young women are a great testament to the equality and personal freedoms that are slowly being introduced in their societies. Shahla Sekandari is also pursuing an English degree at Kabul’s private Dunya University, which would have been strictly forbidden under Taliban rule. "Afghan women don't want to wear miniskirts," she says , "we want to be recognised as human beings, we want the right to work or to go to school."
Zahir has written for several publications over the years while performing as a spoken word artist.