This week, Afghanistan’s Kimia Yusufi competed against the best of the best in the 100-meter track heat at the 2016 Summer Olympics. She was one of three athletes, and the only woman, representing Afghanistan in Rio.

Despite their underrepresentation at the Games and their historical exclusion from the national sport Buzkashi, Afghan women participated in athletics prior to the country’s immersion into decades of war. In fact, Afghanistan had their first women’s cycling team in 1986 and girls engaged in sports as a part of their school curriculum. Female athletes even traveled to other countries to compete.

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, they banned women from sports and outdoor activities, in addition to placing a number of restrictions and regulations on men’s sports. There were very few spaces for men to exercise and they were required to wear long pants and sleeves.

After the fall of the Taliban, there were noticeable improvements in women’s participation in sports and outdoor activities. With the support of the international community, the Afghan government built new playgrounds for school girls and many sports teams for women were created. The new unity government encourages women and girls to play both nationally and internationally. The women’s soccer team has brought home many medals and paved the way for increased opportunities for female athletes. In 2004, two Afghan women competed in the Olympics for the first time in the history of the country. Women and girls are now engaging in many sporting activities from skiing on the hills of Bamyan to climbing the country’s tallest mountains.

Despite these tremendous accomplishments, the fight for Afghan women’s full participation in all sports is far from over. The right to be physically active and engage in outdoor activities is still not a reality for most Afghan women. One major barrier is persisting mentalities that see women’s presence outside the house as a shameful taboo, believing outdoor activities to be only for men. Gyms and parks are often male-only spaces where women still face harassment.

Luckily this is changing. In urban centers, like Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, people are now more aware of the importance of exercising and they are adopting the culture of outing and picnicking, with many families bringing their weekend meals to the parks. There are some gyms, sport clubs, parks and even a few swimming pools just for women.

Kabul and Mazar have many parks for women and families. In Herat Province, women go to Takhti-e-Safar where they can exercise and enjoy the morning fresh air. In Takhar, women and girls go to picnics in a place called Chashma area in district of Taluqan. Since men are prohibited from entering this area on Wednesdays, women take the chance to swim in the river.

Regardless of gender and age, people need exercise, fun and fresh air. Women should have the chance to exercise in safe spaces. On this front, from Kimia Yusufi running in Rio, to Sadaf Rahimi boxing in Kabul, we are breaking barriers every day.

 

Republished with permission from: Free Women Writers 8/16/16.

 

Media Resources: Tolo News 8/12/16; Afghanistan Online 1/26/16; People 3/8/16; Afghan Ski Challenge; The World Post 3/2/16; CBS News.

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