Musings about life

Exploring women in sports in Afghanistan

After getting through three major ultras this year while living in Afghanistan, I have been happily taking a break from training for the past couple of months. It has given me time to reflect on how much of a role this crazy sport has played in my life and how it has helped get me through the days, weeks and months of life in a conflict zone (for a full account, stay tuned for my upcoming article in Go Trail magazine!).

Running has really turned me from an awkward, unsporty nerd into, well, an awkward sporty nerd!  Okay but seriously, I’m so grateful for the strength, confidence, and drive that I’ve gotten from competing in ultras, not to mention the inspiration and companionship I’ve gotten from the people I’ve met (including my incredibly patient Stuart, who has willingly endured long distance since the moment we met in the Gobi).

I’ve started to wonder… Could sports have the same effect for women and girls here? Has it already to some? What is preventing women and girls from getting more engaged in sport?  Is it religious beliefs, cultural notions of appropriate gender roles, lack of appropriate facilities, mentors, or equipment? Lack of opportunities?

I started to look into the matter over the last couple of weeks and I’d really like to share what I’ve found, and hear your thoughts and reactions! (particularly from those who are more knowledgeable on this subject than I am).

There is a perception that Islam does not permit females to engage in sports, and Afghanistan may seem like the last place where female sports would thrive. Images of burqa-clad women splashed across the news don’t exactly conjure up thoughts of females playing soccer, cricket or basketball. However, to state an obvious point, Afghan women – and Muslim women in general, for that matter – is so much more diverse than the burqa stereotype. To illustrate this exact point, please have a peek at this brilliant photo exhibit by Vanity Fair, which “offer[s] a glimpse at women in the Middle East in stark contrast to how we usually see them depicted in the media—active, athletic and glamorous, with no signs of the ominous burqa.”


The stereotypical burqa shot…

My humble research (backed up by discussions here with Afghans) has led me to understand that many Muslims believe that Islam encourages all Muslims to live a healthy lifestyle, including women. Some Islamic scholars have stated that Islam actually supports the participation of girls and women in sports, provided that appropriate concessions are made for modesty. So long as sports do not interfere with one’s faith, there is nothing in the Quran nor in the Hadiths (words and sayings of the Prophet) that explicitly outlaw anyone’s participation in physical activities.  Early Islam contains many examples of both girls and boys participating in sports such as swimming, horseback riding and archery.  Of course, eager to find an example of girls running, I discovered that scholars have said that the Prophet Mohammed raced against his wife A’ishah (ref: Ahmad ibn Hanbal).


The more I looked into the issue, the positive examples I found of Muslim women getting involved in sport. Forward to the modern-day era, did you know that there is something called the Women’s Islamic Games? They have been held every four years in Iran since 1993, with the exception of the planned games in 2010. Afghan women have participated in these games before in track and field, vollyball, takwondo, shooting and chess (really? chess is a sport? I’ll give some leeway on this one).  More recently, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, there was the most number of Muslim women competing in the history of the Olympic Games. Female participants came from Muslim countries all over the world including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei, all countries that were sending females for the first time.

And I have to use this opportunity to give a particular shout out to Tahmina Kohistani from Afghanistan who competed in the 100m sprint. This amazing woman trains at the stadium in Kabul where the Taliban used to execute women…. and she used that training to get her all the way to the Olympics. Whoa. Now THAT is perseverence.

Okay, all reasons to cheer!  However, it isn’t all coming up roses. You won’t be surprised if I say that there are significant challenges preventing women and girls from getting involved in sports. For instance, as illustrated by the following passage in a Washington Post article, even the Muslim women who made it to the Olympics faced many struggles in getting there:

Many of the Muslim female athletes who made it this year, did so without official sponsorship and trained in subpar facilities. Some are not considered valuable to their country’s athletic programs or are not allowed to compete within their home nation’s borders because of restrictions on gender mixing and the politicization of the concept of modest attire. Both women representing Saudi Arabia, for example, train outside of the kingdom’s borders; Sarah Attar, who will compete in the 800-meters is actually an American who holds dual citizenship because her father is Saudi Arabian. Some, like Rahimi [Afghanistan’s first female boxer], represent defiance to decades of strictly interpreted religious tradition and gender stereotypes.”

Hmm. If even the best of the best have to fight hard to learn, train and compete in their sport of choice, where does that leave the rest? What kind of chances do the girls and women I meet here in Afghanistan to really get involved in sports?

Females in sports in Afghanistan

The participation of females in sports in Afghanistan has increased since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and sports teams have formed in urban areas. Great strides have also been made in developing sports programs for females at the national level. There is a national female boxing team, a national women’s cricket team and a national female football (soccer) team.

However, significant structural barriers continue to exist that prevent women’s and girls’ full participation in sports here.  Cultural and traditional beliefs in Afghanistan about gender roles, concerns for modest and societal rules of the use of public spaces heavily shape females’ ability to get involved in sports.  Except for in certain educated or particularly liberal circles, it is not considered appropriate here for women to jump and run around, and especially not if there is a chance that they could be seen by men.   So in many cases, not having access to private facilities will mean not having access to sports aat all. The lack of female-friendly space affects not only whether they can train, but also how they train. One of the players on the national football has stated “I am always thinking, I have to take care when I jump so that nothing shows. We are thinking about our hijab instead of concentrating on our game”. (I accept that some female national team members train alongside men, with or without their hijab, and that this is permissible in certain places… but when members of national teams are still getting death threats against them and their families for participating in sports, I think there is still a problem!).

Stuff to smile about

Let’s talk about the really cool stuff that is happening here. I’m sure you’ve heard of Skateistan, but if you haven’t, you definitely need to check them out. This org started in 2007 as an initiative to get streetkids and other youth involved in skateboarding. However, as the org explains, it is much more than that:

Skateboarding is simply “the hook” for engaging with hard-to-reach young people (ages 5-18). Skateistan’s development aid programs work with growing numbers of marginalized youth through skateboarding, and provide them with new opportunities in cross-cultural interaction, education, and personal empowerment programs. …

In Kabul, Skateistan’s participants come from all of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and include 40% female students, hundreds of streetworking children, and youth with disabilities. In our skatepark and classrooms they develop skills in skateboarding, leadership, civic responsibility, multimedia, and creative arts, exploring topics such as environmental health, culture/traditions, natural resources, and peace.  The students themselves decide what they want to learn – we connect them with a safe space and opportunities for them to develop the skills that they consider important.

I met a pretty awesome girl the other week at a bonfire who is a former pro athlete herself back in the states and volunteers as a climbing teacher at Skateistan’s center. She told me the first time she saw a little girl bombing down a ramp with her colourful hijab flying in wind behind her, she couldn’t help but smile and think she’d found ‘her people’.


Totally cool. Why can’t we have more of this? 🙂

Of course there are some ad hoc programs funded by donors to get girls involved in sports in some areas… and apparently the schools have gym programs, at least in the major cities… but until girls are encouraged and supported, rather than just occasionally allowed, to participate, vast numbers will be left out.

One other interesting thing I wanted to tell you about – the new sports hijab. The issue of the use of the hijab in sport has been a point of much debate over the past couple of years, with some sports authorities banning females from wearing it due to safety reasons or otherwise. However, by banning Muslim women from wearing the hijab, if that was their choice, these authorities were effectively banning them from competing at all. (Human rights lawyer shakes her head at the insensitive rules that result in inequality. I think all women should have the right to choose to wear the hijab in sports if their religious beliefs require it, or not wear it.).  Luckily, significant progress had been made on this front. In July of this year, Fifa overturned its ban on the hijab and one kick-a$$ lady from Montreal has designed a pretty cool sports hijab, which has been officially fifa-approved. Take a look here!!

As you can see, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this lately, much more than can be captured on this screen. I have this strong – very strong – desire to get kids, and especially girls, excited about sports here and find ways to allow them to get involved that are appropriate in this context. From a very selfish point of view, I want to get girls into running. But hey, let’s face it, I can’t really play any other sports, can I. (Have you seen how banged up my knees get from tripping over myself on a flat road???)

My dream started to come true in a very small way last week. I was invited to visit the School of Leadership, Afghanistan to talk to the students about my ultrarunning. Needless to say, I took the invitation and ran with it (haha… couldn’t resist).  It was so much fun to see how intrigued they were about the idea of running a race of 250 km, which is the distance equivalent to the route from Kabul to Peshawar in Pakistan.  After we chatted away and poured over photos, each of the girls competed for attention on the sole treadmill the school had recently placed in their new gym in the basement. I had to hold back whoops of cheer, laughter, and yes, a few emotional tears when I saw them giggling away, one by one, ramping up the speed on the treadmill higher and higher to prove that she was the fastest! (To read my volunteer story, click here for the latest newsletter).

Anyhow, that’s all for now, but just wanted to throw these thoughts out there. I really enjoyed all of your comments and feedback from my last couple of posts, so keep ’em coming! Do you have personal experiences as a Muslim woman (or man) in sports? Do you live in an Islamic country? What are your thoughts on this?

Stories, comments and of course criticisms are most welcome 🙂


5 comments on “Exploring women in sports in Afghanistan

  1. Here are a few of the Moslem women that you are talking about.
    Palestinian Woroud Sawalha
    Iraqi Dana Hussein
    Palestinian Sabine Hazboun
    Unique female athletes (notice the girl at the top of the page…)

    What separates the first three women from the unique female athletes? Freedom from the control of religious male dominated countries with little educational opportunities for women because they are basically run by stoneage tribal religious fanatics.

    I lived in Turkey ( an Islamic country ) for years and found no control placed on female athletes because of Islam. It is not Islam, but stoneage control freaks who are still living in the 5th century. I’m afraid that hell will freeze over long before Afghani women are treated like equals with freedom of choice or given any reasonable measure of respect from the stoneagers. I hope I am wrong…

  2. Thanks for this, this is really wonderful to see, I’ve shared it on facebook.

  3. Good story. I was touched. I do find it humbling when I here about stories like this and contrast it to the freedoms we have. Thank you

  4. Pingback: Male-only marathon? Please boycott | Ultra Runner Girl

  5. Muslim girls are very beautiful, especially the hijab. Should be respected, understood, accepted and loved. I know that this is their tradition, a respect, I accept, understand and I want to love you, I want to marry a girl of this type. I really want to take them under “wing of” mine, I would like to take care of such a girl, to protect her.

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