Afghan women break new ground through sport

In Kabul, female athletes compete for a spot on the Afghan running team. (Photo: Eric Kanalstein)

2 Jun 2013

Afghan women break new ground through sport

On a hot sunny afternoon in May in Kabul, over a hundred schoolgirls, ranging between 13 and 16 years of age and wearing sports clothes and headscarves emblazoned with the flag of Afghanistan, ran as fast as they could.

The girls were competing in races for one of three spots on the national running team.

The event, which took place at the National Olympic stadium and featured female athletes from ten schools from around the capital, lasted several hours and involved a number of races. Afghanistan’s first female Olympic athlete, Tahmina Kohistani, who competed in the 100-metre sprint at the London Olympics in 2012, was on hand to offer encouragement.

Only 12 years ago, under the Taliban regime, women were barred from participating in public sports events. On a broader level, women were not allowed outside of their homes without being escorted by a male member of the family. But the last few years have seen a widening of the space available to Afghan women with, for example, women now being much more involved in fields such as politics and civil society.

This new freedom has also extended to female athletes. Although Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative society, women say that social attitudes towards the place of girls and women, at least in urban areas, have loosened. In this way, the country is catching up with other neighbouring Muslim countries, where women enjoy the right to compete publicly in sports. Indeed, these days in Afghanistan, girls playing sports outdoors is no longer an unusual sight.

“Before, it wasn’t possible for me or for any girls to do sports. People thought we shouldn’t even go to school and being indoors all the time was like living in a prison,” said Fatema Ahmadzai, a female member of Afghanistan’s national karate team, which has grown from five girls to 120 in the past couple of years. “But slowly the mentality of people is starting to change. I think that things are slowly getting better for girls. I hope this door will never close.”

Throughout Afghanistan, women’s teams exist for handball, football, volleyball, basketball, judo, karate, taekwondo, hockey, cricket, chess, powerlifting and other games that are compatible with Afghan and Islamic culture and traditions.

According to the head of women’s sports at the National Olympic Committee of Afghanistan, Shukriya Hikmat, around 3,000 Afghan women compete in leagues for 22 organized sports throughout Afghanistan. Some 1,000 of these girls and women compete in Kabul while the rest play in provincial centres.

The United Nations considers sport to be an important part of development. The right of access to and participation in sport and play has long been recognized in a number of international conventions. In 1978, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization described sport and physical education as a ‘fundamental right for all.’ But until today, the right to play and sport has too often been ignored or disrespected.

The world body has established the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP), based in Geneva, to help bring the worlds of sport and development closer together. According to the UNOSDP, sport has a unique power to attract, mobilize and inspire. By its very nature, sport is about participation, and about inclusion and citizenship. Also, it stands for human values such as respect for the opponent, acceptance of binding rules, teamwork and fairness, all of which are principles which are also contained in the UN Charter.

“The link between sport, peace and development grows stronger by the year,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said on the issue. “By working as a team we can use the power of sport to build the peaceful, prosperous future we want.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ms. Kohistani, who has seen firsthand how sports can promote national unity, bring cohesion and a greater sense of brotherhood and sisterhood to Afghan society.

“Time changes everything; when six Afghan athletes represented Afghanistan in London Olympic Games in 2012, it created a feeling of patriotism, unity and equity among all Afghans throughout the country,” she said.

Afghan women athletes are beginning to make their mark on the world stage. In addition to Ms. Kohistani’s participation at the Olympics, Afghan sportswomen have scored achievements in football, cricket, taekwondo, boxing and powerlifting. In 2010, the female football team defeated Pakistan 4-0 at the South Asian Football Championship. In 2011, Afghan female powerlifters won three gold and two bronze medals at pan-Asian games held in Kazakhstan. Last year, the women’s cricket team won a major competition in Tajikistan. In total, Afghan female athletes have won around 100 medals at regional and international tournaments.

These results are helping women’s sports clubs to grow. For instance, Diana Barakzai, a member of the Afghanistan Cricket Board and the coach of the national team, said that within a year there will be two more national female cricket teams – one for girls under the age of 19, and a second for girls under the age of 15.

Despite these successes, female athletes say that they continue to face pressure to modify their interests to conform to conservative views on the role of women held in some parts of society.

“My family is open-minded about my playing sports but still face problems outside, on the streets, and when I practise people often stare at me in an uncomfortable way or they scream bad things at me and threaten me,” said Sohila Mobasher, a cyclist on the national team. “It makes me scared and sad but I will continue to do it because it’s my right and that motivates me.”

Female athletes also complain that they face a shortage of facilities, and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) echoes those concerns.

“UN Women calls upon the National Olympic Committee of Afghanistan and other relevant entities to react to the needs of Afghan women and provide amenities for female athletes,” said the UN Women Country Representative in Afghanistan, Ingibjorg Gisladottir.

Authorities acknowledge the need for greater investment in sports for women, but say it is a long-term investment.

“We are working on a plan to construct an academy for which the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has provided land, to allow women players to practice in a more conducive environment,” Mrs. Barakzai noted.