A punch at pa­tri­archy

This young Afghan boxer wants to com­pete in the Olympics one day.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - WOMAN - By GUILLAUME DE­CAMME

NINE­TEEN- YEAR- OLD Afghan boxer Sadaf Rahimi slams her punch­ing bag deep in the bow­els of Kabul’s Ghazi sta­dium, deal­ing blows to gen­der stereo­typ­ing and do­ing her part to to ex­or­cise his­tory: it was on th­ese very grounds that the Tal­iban car­ried out pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions.

Sadaf, whose shy gaze seems at odds with her mus­cu­lar 60kg frame, pulls on her gloves. A lib­er­at­ing spasm ac­com­pa­nies each blow that crushes the leather mitts of Agha Gul Alam­yar, one of her train­ers.

Sadaf is a bril­liant boxer. But she is also an ex­cep­tion in this con­ser­va­tive Mus­lim coun­try where women par­tic­i­pat­ing in sport re­mains a taboo.

Her black pirate ban­dana serves not just to hold her hair in place, but to cover it. “I also wear a scarf in my ev­ery­day life be­cause we live in a con­ser­va­tive coun­try,” she says.

The Tal­iban’s regime, known for its bru­tal treat­ment of women, was top­pled in 2001 by a US- led mil­i­tary al­liance. Since then, women’s rights have im­proved, but a bit­ter pa­tri­ar­chal af­ter­taste re­mains for many Afghan women pres­sured to stay at home to cook and raise chil­dren.

At all of 19 years of age – seven of which she has spent in the ring – Sadaf sees a moral obli­ga­tion “to prove that men and women can be equal. Girls are not forced to stay at home”.

Born to a middle- class fam­ily from the Tajik eth­nic group, Sadaf had to first make the case for box­ing – which she dis­cov­ered by watch­ing Mike Tyson and Laila Ali on TV – to those clos­est to her.

“At first my fam­ily was op­posed to me box­ing. They were say­ing: ‘ Why is a girl box­ing? She should stay home, do the chores and cook.’ My aunt is still against it,” re­calls the young woman, who is also pur­su­ing a de­gree in eco­nom­ics.

She is tak­ing a stand on misog­yny and against the dark­est hours of Afghan his­tory, by train­ing in­side Ghazi sta­dium which the Tal­iban used for their pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions dur­ing their 1996 to 2001 regime.

One of th­ese ex­e­cu­tions was filmed in se­cret in 1999. The im­ages show a woman, Zarmina, be­ing ex­e­cuted by Kalash­nikov fire for hav­ing killed her vi­o­lent hus­band.

“It’s a plea­sure to train her,” says Agha Gul Alam­yar, Sadaf’s trainer.

Like other young women, Sadaf has to con­tend with poor equip­ment and ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture. The mats are thread­bare and the gloves and punch­ing bags are old and worn out.

“We lack ev­ery­thing, gloves, boots. There is no en­cour­age­ment for the girls,” he says. The fed­er­a­tion cur­rently counts only 20 women in its ranks.

In an ef­fort to boost the sport among women, Sadaf wants to set up her own club and be­come a trainer. But first she must mount the podium in in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tions, a dis­tant dream.

She has al­ready brought home three bronze medals in re­gional com­pe­ti­tions, but isn’t yet up to Olympic stan­dard – the sport’s Holy Grail.

In 2012, Sadaf lied in or­der to ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion by the Olympics or­gan­iser. But the In­ter­na­tional Box­ing As­so­ci­a­tion even­tu­ally did not al­low her to leave for Lon­don, fear­ing her bet­ter trained op­po­nents could se­ri­ously in­jure her.

And this year, she won’t be go­ing to Rio. This time around the rea­sons are more pro­saic – her de­feat in the South Asian Games in In­dia in mid Fe­bru­ary means she won’t be Olympics bound. “I am dis­ap­pointed,” she said. “In In­dia, I was com­pletely alone. No trainer came with me, I had no sup­port at all.

1 Nine­teen- yearold boxer Sadaf trains in the bow­els of Kabul’s Ghazi sta­dium, where the Tal­ibans used to carry out pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions.

2 Sadif is an ex­cep­tion in a coun­try where women par­tic­i­pat­ing in sports re­mains a taboo.

— Pho­tos: AFP

3 Train­ing for box­ing is this young Afghan’s way of punch­ing at gen­der ster­rotypes that shackle women.

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