Wednesday, October 27

‘We bury our sportswear’: Afghan women fear the fight for martial arts is over | Afghanistan

ORn the morning of August 15, when the Taliban were at the gates of Kabul, Soraya, a martial arts coach in the Afghan capital, woke up feeling dread. “It was as if the sun had lost its color,” he says. That day she taught what would be her last karate class at the gym that had started teaching women self defense skills. “At 11 in the morning we had to say goodbye to our students. We didn’t know when we would see each other again, ”he says.

Soraya is passionate about martial arts and its potential to transform women’s minds and bodies. “Sport has no gender; it’s about good health. I have not read anywhere in the Qur’an that prevents women from playing sports to stay healthy, ”he says.

Opening a women’s sports club was an act of defiance in such a deeply patriarchal society. She and the women who exercised at her club faced intimidation and harassment. “Despite the progress of the past two decades, many families would prevent their girls from attending,” he says. The popularity of martial arts among Afghan women lies in its value as a method of self-defense. In a country that suffers from continuous violence, especially against women, many clubs have been opened in recent years offering different forms of martial arts training.

On the night of the 15th, the Taliban controlled the country and Soraya’s club was closed. Since then, the Taliban have issued edicts prohibiting women from playing sports. Former athletes like Soraya are now locked inside.

“Since the arrival of the Taliban, I have received messages from my students asking me what they should do, where they should train. Unfortunately, I have nothing convincing to say to you. This is so painful. We cry every day, ”he says, adding that the restrictions have affected the mental health of his students.

Tahmina, 15, and her sisters played volleyball for the Afghan national team until this summer; they buried their sportswear when the Taliban approached their hometown of Herat. They fled to Kabul in early August. “We didn’t think Kabul would fall, but we got here and it fell too,” says Tahmina.

The Taliban have already imposed limitations on women at work, including in government workplaces and educational institutes. Hamdullah Namony, Kabul’s acting mayor, said on Sunday that only women who cannot be replaced by men will be able to continue working. The announcement comes after news that schools would reopen just for boys, effectively banning girls’ education.

“We grew up with this dream that we can be useful to our society, be role models, and bring honor. Unlike our mothers and grandmothers, we cannot accept the limiting laws and the death of our dreams, ”says Tahmina.

A group of women's martial arts on top of Shahrak Haji Nabi Hill, near Kabul.
A group of women’s martial arts on top of Shahrak Haji Nabi Hill, near Kabul. Photograph: Deputy Kohsar / AFP / Getty

Maryam, an Afghan taekwondo fighter, has been practicing behind closed doors since the Taliban takeover. She’s used to it, she says, having kept her martial arts training a secret from her disapproving family for years. He has been training for eight years and has won several medals. “I would secretly go to internship and tell my family that I am going to language classes. My family had no idea, “he says.

Yusra, 21, a referee and taekwondo coach, is disappointed. “Like any other athlete, I pursued the sport to proudly raise the tricolor of my country. But now these dreams will never come true, ”he says. Yusra used to provide training to help support her family, which has now lost an important source of income.

None of the women have plans to quit martial arts for long. Maryam says that her students have asked her to teach martial arts at home and she is considering whether it is possible to do it discreetly. “I have already asked the Afghanistan Karate Federation for permission to operate a training program for girls at home, perhaps even in full hijab. However, they tell me that even men are still not allowed to practice, so it is unlikely that women will be allowed, ”he says.

“I’m willing to do it secretly even if it means upsetting the Taliban, but I don’t want my students to fall victim to their wrath if they get caught,” she says.

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