Boxers fighting more than just their opponents


Two female Afghan fighters must ignore threats from religious hardliners ahead of the world championships, writes Ben Farmerin Kabul

TWO YOUNG Afghan women will next month ignore threats and intimidation from religious hardliners to fight for their country at the world boxing championships.

Shahla Sekandari and Sadaf Rahimi are considered the brightest hopes among Afghanistan’s tiny number of female boxers.

Since they began boxing three years ago at a club in Kabul’s national sports stadium, both have faced threats from Afghans who see their sport as an affront to Islam and Afghanistan’s conservative culture.

However, the two students have now been selected to face the best fighters in the world at the AIBA women’s world boxing championships in Bridgetown, Barbados.

The pair will fight amid concern from women politicians that modest, though hard-won, steps toward women’s freedoms are now at risk from the West’s desire to cut a deal with insurgents and leave Afghanistan.

Sekandari and Rahimi train at one of Afghanistan’s two female boxing clubs and spar yards from the football pitch where the former Taliban regime publicly flogged cowering women accused of adultery.

The pair and their 20 fellow fighters arrive at the dingy gym for afternoon training swathed in modest headscarves and baggy coats, before changing into gloves and shell suits.

“When I box here I feel free. Here is freedom for me and for every girl,” said Sekandari, a confident 20 year old who juggles an hour-and-a-half of daily training with an English degree

at Kabul’s private Dunya University.

“There are so many uneducated people in Afghanistan who say bad things about women. I try to ignore these people.”

Sekandari last year took bronze in the Asian Indoor Games in Hanoi, Vietnam, and publicity around her bout triggered a wave of threats which have left her still uneasy.

“People called up and said don’t do boxing, it’s not good, it’s not Islamic and it’s not for women.”

Both women have also had to overcome initial scepticism from their own families.

Both now aim to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics, where women will box for the first time in more than a century.

To get there, they will have to face the Chinese, Indian and Kazakh powerhouses of female boxing who have so far easily outclassed the Afghans in competition.

Starved of money, the Afghans train in a mismatched collection of begged and borrowed kit, on a daily training budget that runs to 80 cent for each boxer.

“The Chinese, the Kazakhs, they have everything, we have nothing. It is very hard for us,” complained Saber Sharifi, the women’s 50-year-old coach.

Women’s boxing would have been unthinkable under the former Taliban regime, where girls’ education was banned and women could only leave the house with an escorting male relative.

The plight of women became an international cause during the 1990s and then was cited as one of the benefits of toppling Mullah Mohammad Omar’s government when it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden.

Hillary Clinton, now US secretary of state, wrote at the time that granting women freedom would mean safety for the rest of the world.

“The mistreatment of women in Afghanistan was like an early warning signal of the kind of terrorism that culminated in the attacks of September 11th,” she said. “A post-Taliban Afghanistan where women’s rights are respected is much less likely to harbour terrorists in the future.”

Such sentiments are now heard infrequently as the death toll rises from a seemingly intractable insurgency and Hamid Karzai’s backers look for a way out.

Military defeat of the Taliban is being discounted and effort is being directed towards a peace process and a political settlement with insurgents.

A deal may mean concessions to their strict ideology, fears Fawzia Koofi, a female MP from the northern province of Badakhshan. “With the Taliban, their policy was clear: no women’s education,” she said. “Now they say they want education under Islamic conditions. Does that mean the current system is not Islamic?”

Mrs Koofi is not reassured by repeated assertions by Mr Karzai and Ms Clinton that the elements of the Afghan constitution that officially guarantee women’s rights will not be negotiated away as part of a political settlement aimed at securing peace.

Women have made gains in Afghanistan – for example millions of girls attend school and the lower house of the parliament has 68 women – but these are fragile and were achieved against resistance.

She and other women fear that a peace deal which offered Taliban commanders provincial or district governorships would usher in de facto Islamist rule in the south of the country. Women officials and politicians would then be forced back into their homes, she warned.

“Afghan women don’t want to wear miniskirts,” she said, “we want to be recognised as human beings, we want the right to work or to go to school.

“The West just wants to sacrifice justice for peace, but let me tell you there may come a day when we don’t have peace and we don’t have justice.”

Shah Gul Rezaie, a fellow MP from Ghazni, added: “During the past eight years we have had some achievements, but if we negotiate with the Taliban, we will lose them.”

Young, educated women like Sekandari and Sadaf would have the most to lose from such a reversal. Sekandari is aware of the symbolism of her fight. “Girls in Afghanistan shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Our country needs them,” she said.