For nearly three decades, the people of Afghanistan have been subjected to a succession of brutal wars, from the Soviet occupation (1979–1989) to a period of tribal civil wars (1990–1996) and the oppressive rule of the Taliban (1996–2001). These conflicts have left Afghanistan’s infrastructure and economy devastated, making it one of the poorest countries in the world.
Prior to the Soviet occupation and Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was a relatively liberal country with a progressive outlook on women’s rights. Afghan women comprised 50% of government workers, 70% of schoolteachers, and 40% of doctors in Kabul. However, the effects of war and the Taliban regime quickly effaced the rights of women in public life and relegated them solely to the domestic domain.
In 2004, a new constitution was approved that has made women and men equal citizens under the law and mandates that women make up 25% of the new parliament. Billions of dollars in foreign aid have poured into the country, both through government-sponsored assistance programs and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).(1) Despite these relative improvements, the state of women in the country can be captured in the following statistics:
One of the worst places to be a woman: breaking down the numbers(2)
- Afghanistan is the 2nd worst country in the world to be a mother.
- 1 woman in 11 dies in pregnancy or childbirth in Afghanistan. In Australia the risk of maternal death is less than 1 in 7,400.
- 87% of women in Afghanistan experience domestic violence.
- 13% of females over 15 years old are literate, compared to 43% of males.
- Almost double the number of boys compared to girls are enrolled in school.
- The average Afghan woman won’t live to see her 50th birthday. In Australia female life expectancy is 84 years.
- Afghan women earn 25 cents or less for every dollar men earn.
- 27 per cent of parliamentary seats are held by women.
- Only 16 per cent of peace agreements in the last two decades have contained a reference to women and gender.
- According to local reports, from mid-2012 to early 2013, 30 female political and civil society leaders have been killed. Female political candidates are the target of 90% of all threats against candidates in Afghanistan.
- Targeted attacks on civilian women and children as they go to work or school have increased by 20% in 2012 compared to 2011.
Even after 14 years of Taliban rule, equal opportunity in Afghanistan depends on more than sheer willpower. For Afghan women, straying from society’s norms can be dangerous. A brutal reminder of this was the mob murder in Kabul in March 2015 of Farkhunda, a female Qur’an teacher falsely accused of blasphemy after getting into an argument with a cleric.(3)
3 years earlier in 2012, Tahmina Kohistani trained in a dilapidated stadium, without proper running shoes, to be the only woman athlete to represent Afghanistan in the London Olympics. Her coach had to fight men outside the stadium in Kabul who told her not to run, that she was a bad Muslim woman, asked her to go home, “to get behind the man”. A taxi driver kicked her out of his cab when he found out she was training for the Olympics.
In all the abuse, Kohistani realized: deep in her lived not only a sprinter, but also a fighter. “I will continue. Someone should respond this way. And someone should take these problems and I am the one who is ready for the problem.”
So she ran. And ran. Because no one could make her believe churning her legs as fast as she could possibly make them go was against Allah and the Muslim faith, which she remains so devoted to. She refused to compete without the hijab, especially during the holy season of Ramadan.
Only one man’s opinion mattered to her, and after early reservations, Kohistani’s father told her simply: “Run. Run for Afghanistan. Run like you’ve never run before.”
On the day she qualified for the Olympic games, she began to cry underneath her red, black and green scarf, cry for every little girl who was told not to run by her parents in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. She cried because those girls would never know the joy of moving with the wind in the middle of a dead sprint.
Kohistani finished the 100-meter sprint in 14.42 seconds, almost four seconds behind the world record. She did not qualify for the next round and finished 31st out of 32 competitors.
As if that mattered!
The Afghan sprinter wept openly as she spoke, tears dotting her hijab. “It was one of my dreams to go to the Olympic Games. And right now I achieve my dream and my dream come true and I am very happy for that.”
“I’m here to represent a country with lots of problems right now,” she continued. “Right now we are facing the loss of children, the loss of family, every day there are bomb blasts, there is killing – it is very important for me to represent a country that has lots of problems like this.”
“Right now, when I go back home, there will be a lot of problems, people who are waiting for me, people who will do things wrong with me.”
“All the world thinks we just want war and we don’t do our best for peace but it’s not right. We need freedom, we love freedom.”
“What I face, I face all the challenges, cross all the problems, and right now I am here.” Here. The Olympics.(4)
During her time in London, Kohistani was most struck by how much everyone smiles. “It is the thing I have learnt from your people – when I go back home I am going to do this with my people also. It is the most wonderful thing.”(5)
2015 – In August, Zainab ran an unofficial marathon from the Paghman Valley to Kabul with three other young women. As they entered the capital, they were bombarded with the kind of insults reserved for Afghan women who have the audacity to do anything out of the ordinary in public.
“The children were stoning us, the people said bad words like ‘prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam’,” Zainab recalled. The women had to cut the race short.
A marathon is exhausting for most practitioners, but few have to muster the additional willpower to endure the kind of abuse Zainab, 25, faces each time she laces her trainers to venture outdoors. The fitness regime of this sole Afghan woman, who took part in Afghanistan’s first official marathon – the Bamiyan marathon, was limited to jogging laps in her family’s small backyard because running outside was unsafe.
Sport has become, for Zainab, a tool to encourage Afghan women to defy cultural norms and assert themselves in society. As part of a generation that hardly remembers Taliban rule, and whose values evolve faster than those of society, Zainab has seen many male figures of authority try to thwart her few options to exercise.(3)
2016 – Women’s sports programs in Afghanistan, long a favorite of Western donors, have all but collapsed.
Even the relatively few encouraging stories, like women’s taekwondo, one of the sports that may see an Afghan woman sent to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, are at best qualified successes. Afghanistan’s strongest hope for a female taekwondo medalist, Somaya Ghulami, 23, actually lives in Iran and commutes to practice sessions. She said she would never be able to compete if she had to live in her own country.(6)
As dreams sprint; Change comes at a crawl in this war-torn country
One half heckles, the other simply yearns to be free!