Empowering Women and Girls in Afghanistan through Sport

“The children were stoning us, the people said bad words like ’prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam.’” —Zainab, Afghanistan’s first female marathon runner

International Women’s Day celebrates the road to equality and a more gender balanced world, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

Martin Parnell’s most recent book, The Secret Marathon: Empowering Women and Girls in Afghanistan through Sport, highlights the power of sport to change lives and takes the reader on an inspirational journey into Afghanistan, a country known for political chaos and female oppression.

In this excerpt, we hear from Kubra Jafari from Afghanistan and her journey for the freedom to run.

Excerpt from The Secret Marathon: Empowering Women and Girls in Afghanistan through Sport (RMB, 2018)

“I was born in Tehran. My family had to leave Afghanistan, and we were living in Iran, as refugees. My father had no permanent job but worked on farms, looked after cows, and did some masonry. My mother also worked, and I began working, at the age of seven, picking fruit, helping on farms and weaving carpets.
I was also going to school. There were both boys and girls in my class, up to Grade 5. I didn’t have any opportunity to take part in sports, but we would play games like Chase. I loved reading and had many books of short stories. I attended up to Grade 7, but then my parents were told they would have to pay if they wanted me to continue, but they couldn’t afford it, so I had to leave.

My father wanted his children to have an education, and so he decided to take us back to Afghanistan, where we settled in a district of Kabul. By this time, I was 14 years old and had missed a year of schooling, so I went straight from Grade 7 to Grade 9.

The lessons weren’t difficult, as the standard of education was lower there than it was in Iran. I wasn’t happy at my new school. The teachers and children mocked us because of our accents and clothes, and said, “Stay away from those Iranians.” It was very hurtful.

After living among the fields, fruit trees and green countryside of Tehran, it was strange to be in the mountains of Afghanistan, where there was hardly a tree to be seen. In Iran we had electricity and good food and water, but not in Kabul. For about a year, my family kept getting sick.

My goal was to learn English, go to university and obtain my PhD. Unfortunately, despite studying very hard, I failed the entrance exam for the university of my choice. Instead, I applied for a scholarship to study, for seven years, at the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Bangladesh and was accepted. But I couldn’t settle and found it hard to adapt to the hot climate and the food, and I became very homesick. Eventually, I decided to leave and return to Kabul.

After Bangladesh, I was extremely depressed and didn’t know what I was going to do.

One day, my best friend took me to an education centre and showed me a computer program called Premiere Pro, which is a video-editing software package suitable for both amateur enthusiasts and professionals. For three months, I learned how to edit films and then I got a call to say I’d been accepted for the Youth, Solidarity and English Language program (YSEL), at the American Embassy in India.
Administered by American Councils for International Education, the Youth, Solidarity and English Language program is a month-long, English-immersion academic camp for secondary-school-aged students from different provinces throughout Afghanistan. In addition to English-language-acquisition, the program cultivates a strong sense of national identity, youth solidarity, leadership and volunteerism.

It was then that things really began to come together. I studied hard and learned so many new things. All the teachers were American, and I became aware of a world, outside of my own, that I had known very little about. It gave me hope and made me realize that, despite all that had gone on before – not getting into university, my time in Bangladesh – that was in the past, and I now had the opportunity to achieve many things.

I started volunteering with children and was chosen to go back to India for a year and work as a counsellor for YSEL. After that, I spent six months making documentaries for Afghan Voices, a content-development program.

I met a businesswoman who introduced me to Peace Through Business, a business training and mentorship program for women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan and Rwanda. The program is in its 11th year and is implemented through three major components – In-Country Education, Leadership Development, and Pay It Forward – which combine to create a sustainable program to educate women, promote their business and leadership skills, build a strong public-policy agenda in the women’s business community, and help build stable democracies.

I made a proposal to them, explaining that I would like to create a business making documentaries, animation and advertisements relating to the protection of females. They liked my idea and I was chosen to go on a three-week trip to America, to learn about entrepreneurism. I spent two weeks in Dallas, Texas, and a week in Oklahoma. I liked America, but the trip was spoiled when some of the women on my team ran away.

The organizers were afraid that the four of us remaining would do the same, and so we were then watched very closely all the time. It was a shame. There I was in the country of freedom, and yet I felt like I was in a prison.

I returned to Kabul and continued at university. In the end, I decided not to pursue my idea for a business relating to protection and, instead, by January 2015 had set up two other businesses. One was a planning business for celebrations such as birthdays, weddings, graduations and so on, and the other was a business that designed shopping bags for stores – I would travel to Iran to buy the materials.

In the spring of that year, I was introduced to Stephanie Case from the NGO Free to Run. She was looking for a videographer to accompany her on a trip to film two female Afghan athletes, Zainab and Nelofar. On our return, I continued to film them at home, at work, training on the treadmill and in the mountains.
As I watched them, I felt a part of me was missing. I wanted to run too. They had inspired me.

I started running on a treadmill and told Stephanie that I wanted to join the next group to run an ultramarathon. She sent me an application, which I completed, and I persuaded my friend Arzoo to fill one in too. She had never run, but I told her she’d enjoy it.

We were so happy when we found out we’d been accepted for the RacingThePlanet Sri Lanka Ultramarathon. Training on the treadmill was hard, so we would go out onto the empty streets at 2 a.m. and run. At these times, Arzoo said she felt liked the streets belonged to us, and that freedom to run gave her power.

One morning, a guy cycled across my path and hit me, and sometimes, when we went hiking, people would look at our hiking gear and sports clothes and harass us, saying we were “not good Afghan girls.”

I had a very difficult time at the race. At first things went smoothly, but at around the 30-km mark I had a panic attack and had to drop out. But I did stay and volunteer for the rest of the event. Arzoo finished the race but afterwards decided she didn’t want to run anymore, and she quit. Although I hadn’t achieved my goal at the ultra, I knew it wasn’t the end for me.

I wasn’t going to give up, as I still felt I could be a good runner, so I kept on running. I asked Stephanie if I was still on the team, and she said I was. I loved that.

My next race was the Bamyan marathon, on November 4, 2016. I remember, on the day, feeling really scared, but once I got going, I told myself I could do it. Things got really messy around the halfway mark, as I hadn’t trained properly. It was a very strange feeling because I was telling myself, Just keep going ahead, but my body was saying, No, you can’t do it. When I reached the finish line, it was an awesome feeling that I had achieved something. It’s a feeling I will never forget. I know I couldn’t have done it without the support of Martin Parnell, a runner from Canada who helped me get through it. He encouraged me the whole time and never let me get my spirits down.

After the marathon, I returned to Kabul and started working for Free to Run on a part-time basis. I was also working at FKH Media Productions, as an assistant project manager. The company produces high-quality media products and public-outreach services and undertakes commercial and public-awareness campaigns throughout Afghanistan.

I took part in a four-day hike and kayaking expedition for girls in the Panjshir Valley. When I returned, my manager at FKH gave me a warning, even though my boss, who operates out of Turkey, had given me permission to go. I Skyped with my boss and explained that I didn’t think it was fair and, also, the fact that the manager had told me he hadn’t wanted a girl working there and was against me being hired. Unfortunately, the boss said he couldn’t go against the manager’s decision, so I resigned.

Around that same time, my mother had decided to take my brothers and return to Iran. Everything was so mixed up. I was in a very tough situation. I’m so glad that I had my running. I would run three times a day. I had my teammates, and they made me feel better and stronger.

Since July 2017, I’ve been employed by Free to Run on a full-time basis and, at the time of writing, I am working with them to prepare for the third Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan in late October 2017. I am planning to run again and, this time, I want to be the first female finisher.*

I have just graduated from university and, next year, I hope to begin working towards my master’s degree. I was one of a group of five Afghan women who made a presentation to the UN, at its compound in Kabul. After that, I went to Bamyan to learn ice-skating and I met up with Zainab and Nelofar.

I have told Martin that I have dream. One day, I am going to be the president of Afghanistan and I will invite Martin to come and visit me. We will drink tea and go for a 10-km run.

That is still my dream.”

*Kubra finished the marathon in 5 hours 30 minutes. Even though she wasn’t First Lady, she beat the time she set in the 2016 event by over 1 hour 20 minutes.

Join us for The Secret Marathon 3K run/walk. Held on the week of International Women’s Day, this race celebrates our right to be free to run. We’re inviting men and women to come together in solidarity supporting the right all humans should have to walk or run free of fear in their community.

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