On the Run in… Afghanistan

A coura­geous woman shows us run­ning is also an ex­er­cise in free­dom

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - By Rhi­an­non Rus­sell

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

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