On the Run in… Afghanistan
A courageous woman shows us running is also an exercise in freedom
Zainab has had to stop running. The 28-year-old Afghan woman recently moved to an apartment building that offers her no space to run. Her last residence, a house, had a small garden where she could move around safely, away from jeering men on the streets. (I’ve not included Zainab’s last name or the city she lives in, for her safety.) She misses running, but there’s not much she can do about it. Hiring security, such as a car that will drive alongside her, is expensive. Treadmills are available at women’s gyms, but it’s more expensive to use them than other workout machines, she says. She doesn’t know why. “If you start running by yourself [outside], without any security support, you will pay with your life,” Zainab says.
Zainab knows this firsthand. When she started running in 2015, men harassed and even threw stones at her. “Stop running!” they shouted. “You are a prostitute! You are destroying Islam!”
“It’s not good for girls to run on the street,” she says. “If you are in a hurry, you don’t have to run. You can walk fast, but some people think a Muslim woman shouldn’t run because your body will shake.” During one run with her friend Nelofar, two cars with tinted windows followed the women and attempted to kidnap them. “Sometimes I was really scared,” Zainab says. “And sometimes, I was trying to find a very strong reason to not stop.”
Born in Iran as a refugee, Zainab moved to Afghanistan when she was 13. She played on her high school’s basketball team and did taekwondo – until police shut down the club. “They were thinking that sport is not for girls,” she says. In 2015, she heard about Free to Run, an organization founded by Canadian ultra runner and human rights lawyer Stephanie Case that supports and encourages women living in conf lict zones to participate in sport. Case was looking for Afghan women interested in running an ultramarathon: the 250-kilometre Gobi March in China. Aside from moving up and down the basketball court years before, Zainab had no experience running, but she applied. She’d been inspired by her mother, who, as a young refugee in Pakistan, had started running with her friends in the desert for fun. For five months, Zainab and Nelofar, the other Afghan woman accepted into the race, trained with Case. It was difficult to find safe places to run,
away from harassment and physical threats. Ultimately, they ran in a compound. Despite challenging training conditions, Zainab made it to the Gobi March, and 250 kilometres later, she crossed the finish line. It was a life-changing event for Zainab. “Running is really tough, and running teaches you to deal with every kind of problem in your life,” she says. “When I came back from Gobi, I was thinking that I am full of experience. I can manage every problem in my life and after that, I found that life is like an ultramarathon. It starts with very high stakes; you will face many problems during your life, and at the end, you will receive a very important thing.” After that, she decided to run the Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan province. “I thought, Why not? I did 250k and it’s just 42,” she says. Zainab wore the multiple layers she always runs in: pants, skirt, T-shirt, hijab, scarf and a head wrap over top of the scarf. Her completion of the race marked a national milestone: she was the first Afghan woman to run a marathon in her home country, and she received international media coverage for doing so.
But now, Zainab isn’t running. It makes her angry that change is so slow to come. “We are ready,” she says. “We Afghan women are ready to make this opportunity for ourselves. But it will take a very long time.” As an ambassador for Free to Run, her high-profile achievements have inspired other Afghan girls and women to run and travel to international races.
People t el l Za i nab she’s fighting for the next generation of girls as she finds freedom in the present. “I say, Why not me?”
ABOVE Zainab and her racing partner Nelofar and the Free to Run team at the finish line in the 2015 Gobi March
BELOW Zainab and her racing partner Nelofar stopped for daily prayers throughout the 2015 Gobi March. This was about midway through the race.
LEFT AND BELOW Zainab during the Gobi March by Racing the Planet in 2015
RIGHT Zainab and her racing partner Nelofar training for the 2015 Gobi March
RIGHT Zainab running in the first Marathon of Afghanistan as the first Afghan woman to complete a marathon in the country