In a world where there are many countries which don’t afford women the same rights as men, there are other outlets that have become the “loophole”, if you will, for women to speak out and exert their power in a different way. One of those outlets is sports. In many conservative nations, women are forbidden from publicly playing or competing in sport, let alone against the opposite sex.
In Afghanistan, under the Taliban rule women were prohibited from playing sport, but under the democratic government since 2001, women have competed in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympic games. On an international front, that is a major step forward. But the real change happens when women in every community around the nation has the freedom to participate in an athletic activity without the fear of being shunned, ostracized, or threatened.
In the capital city of Kabul, the first ever female-only fitness club has opened a few months ago by a young businesswoman determined to instill courage and empowerment in women. Tahmina Mahid Nuristani, 20, opened Blue Moon Fitness Club and told the media she wants to promote a healthy lifestyle and sports among women despite the prevailing patriarchal culture.
“It was my life’s ambition to open this club…Afghanistan is a conservative society, but in defiance of this, I opened the club nearly two months ago, with the hope of contributing to female empowerment here,” she said, adding that it cost her $20,000.
In rural areas especially, it is not just sport that is seen as a taboo for women. In some cases even education or employment is forbidden.
“My sole aim of opening the club is to support the women’s cause and to encourage them to come out of their houses, go to sports clubs and exercise,” said Tahmina.
One of the club members said she gets harassed regularly by men on the street when she rides her bike to Blue Moon. But 19 year-old Rukhsar Habibzai isn’t about to give into patriarchal or cultural pressure any time soon.
“Even though these ignorant, sexist men with extreme views are trying to intimidate me from going to the fitness club, I am determined to continue my practice…With courage and determination, we Afghan women can overcome the harmful traditions and cultural barriers to prove and elevate our existence in society,” she said.
Since opening, 50 women have signed up as members and it is slowly growing. They are building on a growing legacy of women who are seeing the opportunities that can open up through the world of athletics and fitness. In 2012, boxer Sadaf Rahimi was set to become the country’s first female boxer to participate in the London Olympic games.
Despite making it through the World Boxing Championships and qualifying for her spot, a last minute decision by the International Boxing Association determined that she would not be allowed to compete citing safety reasons due to the higher level of skill by her opponents who had been competing for a longer time. In 2o16 only one female athlete competed for Afghanistan – 20 year-old Kamia Yousufi who ran in the women’s 100m race.
Soccer is another sport where women are spreading their wings and attempting to normalize what was seen as non-compliant culturally and religiously under the Taliban. Today, there are over 1000 female soccer players in Afghanistan, many of whom compete against each other. In Kabul alone there are 22 clubs made up of the women who are the first female generation to compete since the fall of the Taliban regime.
Tahmina Mahid Nuristani and her Blue Moon Fitness Club in Kabul reminds us of Saudi Arabian businesswoman Halah Al Hamrani who opened the Kingdom’s first female private boxing club in Jeddah called Flagboxing, as well as Glowfit the first all-female fitness club in Saudi Arabia opened by a group of entrepreneurs who want to promote female empowerment and diversify the workforce.
It is altogether fitting that we see women in such conservative nations, where we have seen some horrific human rights abuses, taking to athletic endeavors to empower themselves. In any sport you need strength, focus, endurance and determination to compete at the highest level. It is a fitting metaphor for what many women in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and other conservative nations are doing in the quest for equal rights.