When Rahimi, 18, raises her gloves in triumph as she bounds into London’s boxing ring in August, she will be Afghanistan’s first female boxer in the Olympics’ first female boxing competition—and only the third female athlete Afghanistan has ever sent to the Games. To get there, she has had to fend off social opprobrium, religious condemnation and even the disapproval of some of her own coaches, who believe women’s boxing shouldn’t go any further than a hobby. Rahimi has won every one of those battles. Her path to London is but the latest leg of an extraordinary journey for Afghanistan’s women, who, little more than a decade ago, were forced to stay at home, denied the right to obtain an education, to work—and to play sports. Since then, Afghanistan has had its share of brave, defiant women, from presidential candidates to female cops to the deputy speaker of parliament. By and large, they are the exceptions, trailblazers a generation ahead of the pack. Still, none have stepped, as Rahimi has, into a violent world that until relatively recently, even in the U.S. and the U.K., was a purely male preserve.
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You might think that the participation of an 18-year-old female boxer in the Olympics would be a much debated topic of conversation in Afghanistan. It’s not. Few are even aware that a woman—a woman pugilist no less—will represent Afghanistan in London this year. The Afghan National Olympic Committee has kept her participation quiet, for fear of a conservative backlash. Of all the sports currently available to women in Afghanistan—among them track and basketball—Rahimi picked the one that most defies Afghan notions of femininity. It’s difficult to say what would be more appalling to the majority of Afghans: the thought of a woman traveling alone to compete in front of unknown men, or the idea of a woman punching and spitting in perhaps the most savage of men’s sports, a sport that happens to have become something of an obsession with Afghan men.
That passion was sparked by a visit from former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who visited the country in 2002 as a U.N. Messenger of Peace. Ali’s legacy is visible on an early-evening drive through Kabul’s dust-choked streets: lights stream through the open doors of neighborhood gyms; the backlit forms of young men jabbing and ducking cast flickering shadows on the sidewalks outside. Women are not invited to join. At Kabul’s World Sport Shop—“Supplier of the best sports accessories from the most famous company of the world in all over Afghanistan”—salesman Sohrab Mohammadi tells me that a third of his sales are for boxing gear. I ask him how many women bought boxing gloves. He looks at me quizzically. “Women don’t box. They buy yoga mats and ab machines.” When I tell him that an Afghan woman is going to box in the Olympics, he is incredulous, then angry. “Haram,” he says—that’s wrong. “Let women run, or play volleyball. Boxing is for men.”
Born to Fight
For Rahimi, it was not the three-time champ from Louisville, Ky., who inspired her unusual choice of sport but the Greatest’s daughter Laila Ali, whom Rahimi found in a YouTube clip. Laila had become a pro boxer, like her father, and Rahimi was inspired to follow in Laila’s dancing footsteps. That initial glimpse into the world of women’s boxing coincided with a visit to her high school in 2007 by a couple of enterprising Afghan coaches, who, with funding from Oxfam and the help of a small NGO called Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU), were seeking to establish an experimental women’s boxing club. As a refugee in Iran, Rahimi had picked up a few self-defense tips from a cousin who boxed, “but I didn’t know I could do it as a sport till CPAU came to my school,” she says. Her father was reluctant at first. He worried that such an unorthodox sport, not to mention the possibility of a broken nose, might hurt her chances for marriage down the line. But then Rahimi’s two younger sisters also begged to join the new boxing club, and he found himself outnumbered.
The sheer challenge of taking on a sport so singularly unsuited to expectations of what an Afghan girl could do helped push her into the ring. “I wanted to prove that Afghan girls could do everything too, just like in the West,” she says. Rahimi’s perverse drive doesn’t surprise her mother Saleema, whose own dreams of becoming an Olympic volleyball player were crushed by the Afghan government’s refusal to let women compete. “I have four daughters and one son,” says Saleema Rahimi. “And I have raised them all to be champions.” She just didn’t imagine that they would take her constant exhortations to fight for their rights quite so literally.
Not only did they fight, but they also defended their right to box when residents of their downtrodden Kabul neighborhood questioned the suitability of their behavior. “The boys call us the mafia now, and they leave us alone,” says Sadaf Rahimi with a giggle, recounting a story about how she once punched out a local tough who made fun of the girls’ chosen after-school activity. But her prowess in the back alleys doesn’t necessarily translate into success in the ring.
Rahimi’s presence in London has as much to do with a quirk in the rules as it does skill. She goes to London on a wild-card invitation, a special berth granted to nations that would not otherwise be able to qualify an appropriately skilled athlete. She is the first to admit that she wouldn’t have made it any other way. Where some of her competitors benefit from thrice-daily training by multiple coaches, and have sports doctors and nutritionists on call, she practices after school three days a week in a ramshackle studio filled with 20-odd classmates. They are forced to share a dozen sets of gloves and helmets that were donated by CPAU. The country’s only regulation boxing ring, housed in a leaking warehouse on the far side of the Olympic compound, is only partially completed, with a tattered mat and no bell. (During the men’s matches, referees bang a metal cylinder with a hammer to end rounds.)
Not that it would serve Rahimi much—Afghanistan’s Islamic tradition prohibits her from fighting men, and, as the best in her club, she rarely gets a chance to improve her game. She is sanguine about her chances. She has been knocked down before—in a competition in Kazakhstan—but never out. London, she fears, will be different. “I am sure I will be punched like a bag. Like I am a pillow being pummeled.” Her goal isn’t to win so much as it is to stay upright. “If I am going to lose, let me lose by the numbers,” she says, referring to the scoring system. “I just don’t want to be down on and knocked out on the floor. That would be embarrassing for me and a dishonor for Afghanistan.”
Some Battles Are Harder to Win
as much as rahimi loves the sense of power and independence that boxing gives her, she knows it is temporary at best. She is haunted by the experience of a former mentor, the boxer Shahla Sekandari. In 2009, Sekandari won a bronze medal at the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam, earning accolades both at home and abroad. “She really was something special,” reminisces Mohammed Saber Sharifi, who coaches the women’s boxing team. “Our first real boxer.” He speaks of her passion, courage and will to win in the past tense, as if she were dead. For him, she might as well be. Not long after returning from Vietnam, Sekandari got married. Her husband made her quit boxing and changed her phone number. It had been her dream to go to the Olympics, but she was forced to cut all ties with the world of women’s boxing. “We have traditions in Afghanistan,” Sharifi explains. “Once a woman leaves her family to get married, she is not allowed to do what she was doing before. She belongs to her new family, and if they don’t want her to box, she doesn’t have a choice.”
More than a decade after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s women may be punching out a few small spaces for themselves in sports, in television or in business. But they are still a long way away from enjoying the independent lives most women take for granted in the West. It’s nearly impossible for an Afghan woman to live on her own in Afghanistan. For this reason, Rahimi intends to stay with her parents as long as possible. When she got the invitation to London, Rahimi tracked down and called Sekandari for advice. “She says I need to work on my right uppercut. And she says don’t get married.”
To religious conservatives, the fact that Rahimi boxes is immaterial. They don’t want to see women compete in the Olympics at all. To them, her chosen sport is simply a bizarre eccentricity garnishing a stack of other cultural taboos. Maulvi Qalamuddin, former head of the Taliban’s religious police who has now joined the government, ticks off the sins associated with Rahimi’s trip to London with his fingers: women venturing outside the home, women performing in front of men, women improperly dressed and women traveling without a male family member. “It is shameful that a woman is representing Afghanistan at the Olympics,” he says. “We don’t care about medals like you do in the West. We want our women honored for being doctors or economists or mathematicians. Not athletes.”
Furthermore, by his definition, he adds, it’s against the law. The Afghan constitution states that no law shall contravene Shari‘a—Islam’s moral and religious code. “Women going anywhere without maharam [a male family member] is against Shari‘a,” says Qalamuddin. “Boxing is against Shari‘a, and women competing is against Shari‘a. So it is illegal for an Afghan woman to go to the Olympics for boxing.” There is no one agreement on how to interpret the often conflicting dictates enshrined in the Koran and in stories of the Prophet Muhammad that make up Shari‘a, but those who take an extreme view, like Qalamuddin, tend to have the loudest voices.
In London, Rahimi will have to navigate a difficult path between the demands of her sport and the expectations of her more conservative countrymen. Even though her curly black ponytail swings free in practice, she will keep it tightly bound under a scarf and protective headgear in front of the cameras. She will wear tights under her regulation boxing shorts. And in every way possible, she will strive to be an example of a good Muslim woman just as much as she tries to obliterate the burqa-shrouded stereotype of her nation. “I am tired of the world seeing Afghan women as victims. I want to deliver a message to the world through my fighting that Afghan girls are not victims. Whether I win a medal or not, I will be a symbol of courage as soon as I step into the ring.”
Rahimi’s battle, like that of her teammates, might already be winning some converts. As the women trickle out of the gym to make way for the men’s team, I stop to ask one of the men’s coaches what he thinks of women boxing. “At the beginning it was strange,” admits Sayed Haroon. “Everything new is strange at first, but you can get used to anything if you see it enough times.”
—with reporting by Walid Fazly and Andrea Bruce/Kabul