April 6th, marks the The International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. This is an annual celebration of the power of sport to drive social change, community development and to foster peace and understanding according to the United Nations.
This is true in the case of developing countries in particular in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a war torn country. It has suffered from the Soviet Union in early 1980s, later from the war by the Mujahadeen to defeat the Soviets, civil war throughout the 90s, and the Taliban in 1990s to present. It had no time to breath and recover. The entire populations were affected severely, and in particular, the women and the youth. Women weren’t able to practice sports due to the patriarchy, strict religious laws, and traditional society. However, the women and the youth always craved to practice sports; it brings joy and peace to their lives.
All the Afghan athletes want to promote peace, stability, and development in Afghanistan; Sports empower people to make their dreams come true.
Sports are receiving a positive response from Afghan society. Athletes are getting invited to the different local TV shows, channels and radio stations. Whenever they get a chance, they speak up to amplify their voices, and promote the message of peace and prosperity for the country. Athletes are playing a significant role of peacemakers in the society. They’re symbol of hope, and becoming role models for the younger generation.
The female athletes are promoting gender equality, and bringing visibility to women’s rights. They’re taking space in public spheres, and making marks as successful women.
Afghanistan is a perfect example of rigidly defined patriarchal gender roles. Women are seen as the caregivers for her family, and men are seen as the provider. Women and girls didn’t have an opportunity to participate in sports based on many combinations of the issues mentioned above. Despite the limited choices, poor security situation, outside and in side their homes, women and girls have managed to join different sports clubs, martial arts in particular.
All forms of martial arts became popular, because it is indoors sports, the uniform covers from head to toe, and it it perceived as respectful form of arts by the society, and the families.
There are Judo, Wushu, Tae kwan do, Karate, and many other martial arts centers in Afghanistan.
The sport of Judo is an excellent example of martial arts in Afghanistan. This sport was introduced by a German citizen who was training the Afghan national police in the late 80s, and only men’s team was able to practice at that time. Later, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, a Norwegian diplomat to Afghanistan named Stig Traavik introduced Judo to Afghan women for the first time. Mr. Traavik is a six times national champion and competed in Judo at the 1992 in Barcelona. He is currently a Special Envoy for the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment.
When women were welcome to join the Judo sports, there were only three teenage girls in the entire country. There were many girls, but aged from 6 to 10 years old only.
It was a taboo for women and girls to join sports clubs then. If women did, they were treated as prostitutes, girls with loose morals and worse. But these three girls didn’t give up, nor they let the society’s misogynist let effect them; they continued. They participated and competed in local and international Judo tournaments.
Examples of Afghan girls making history in sports:
In 2004, Fahima Rezayee competed at juniors’ Judo tournament in India, and she struck a gold medal. This was her very first match, but she championed it. Her gold medal was pride for the entire nation. She is the first Afghan girl win a gold for Afghanistan in the sports of Judo. She later received a six months Judo scholarship by NPO Judos in Japan to study at Tokai University. She practiced very hard, day and night. She was also the first Afghan girl to receive that fully funded scholarship, and to receive her black belt recognition from the Kodokan.
Kodokan is the center of the Judo in the world. It is the Mecca of Judo. The Kodokan Judo Institute, or Kōdōkan, is the headquarters of the worldwide judo community. The Kōdōkan was founded in 1882 by Kanō Jigorō, the founder of judo, and now operates a world-class training facility and dormitory at an eight-story building in Tokyo.
Nigara Shaheen is an Afghan Judo athlete currently living and studying in Russia. She is obtaining her Masters’ degree. She is an IJF (International Judo Federation) athlete, who competes internationally. She has participated at the 2013 Asian Games in Hong Kong. Her latest competition was at the Grand Slam in Dusseldorf Germany in February 2020. She was selected to participate in the two other Grand Slams, in Ekaterinburg in Russia in March 2020, and in Hungary in October 2020, unfortunately, she was unable to participate due to COVID 19.
Parwin Askari, she recently represented Afghanistan in the sport of Judo in the Grand Slam in Tashkent Uzbekistan. This was her first ever tournament. Her original weight category is -57kg, but she competed in -63 against a Judo athlete from England. Although this was one weight category up her weight, she fearlessly faced her opponent and finished the match.
Now, there are more than one hundred girls, who are currently enrolled and are practicing. The Afghan women’s Judo team is strong; they are tough and they don’t take no for an answer. However, they’re not immune to the violence against women. On multiple occasions, the Afghan female Judo athletes have expressed that their brothers, male relatives, and neighbors are against their Judo sport, that they have been receiving death threats.
Fatima, one of the girls from the Judo team, whose name has been changed due to security reasons, has mentioned once that “it feels good not to be beaten in three days in a row”. She also expressed that “it feels good and weird not to be abused in a few days in a row”. Fatima’s brothers physically abuse her for attending the Judo classes, and they want to genuinely stop her, but she is not giving up.
Maryam, a second girl from the team, and whose name has also been changed to protect her, showed me a picture of her right arm that was burned. Her brother throw a thermos of hot water (which is used for hot tea) at her for taking leadership to choose her own life. She wants to become a world Judo champion. But her brothers are against that. Maryam missed many Judo classes due to this injury, however, she still showed up at the Judo mat before she properly healed from the burn.
Fatima is a beautician, a midwife, she is currently studying sports science at Kabul university, and she is a Judo athlete, but she is facing gender discrimination on a daily basis.
Fatima and Maryam have been gaining more respect at home after their determination to the sports, and making an identity for themselves. Women and girls are seen as secondary citizens, but the Judo athletes are challenging that want to be respected as men.
The difference between the two genders is not a ‘gap’ in Afghanistan, it is an ocean.
About the author: Friba Rezayee is the founder and the Executive Director of Women Leaders of Tomorrow and its leadership in sports project GOAL (Girls of Afghanistan Lead). She was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan. At the age of 18, she made history by competing in Judo at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens as Afghanistan’s first ever female Olympic athlete.
Friba’s participation in the Olympics brought Afghanistan back to the world stage in sports after the fall of the Taliban. She inspired hundreds of other Afghan girls to join different sports, in a sports revolution for Afghan female athletes.
She has been an outspoken and passionate advocate for women and girls’ access to sports and education in Afghanistan from an early age.