Twenty-year-old Nila Ahmadi is shy and soft-spoken, but a tough fighter hides beneath her gentle demeanor. A third-degree senior black belt in taekwondo, she has already achieved a number of international honors for Afghanistan at competitions.
She is among the the handful of Afghan women athletes working overtime to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Summer Games in 2016. In addition to the rigorous training regime required of world-class athletes, these Olympic hopefuls have to contend with chauvinism, a lack of training facilities, and the government’s indifference.
Ahmadi began learning the ancient Korean martial art as a toddler. In 2012 she won a silver medal at the Asian Taekwondo Championships in Vietnam, and her goal now is to take home a medal for her country at the Olympics.
"I want to contribute to a positive and progressive image of my country, which is often seen as a war-torn nation," she told Radio Free Afghanistan.
But her circumstances in Kabul, where she lives, are not very conducive to high-level athletic training. The meager salary she earns as a receptionist at a private university funds her daily training in a rundown taekwondo club that admits women and the long bus journey she takes to get there, but not much else.
The male athletes, Ahmadi says, have a private taekwondo trainer from South Korea hired by the Afghan government, and they train at a well-equipped facility in Kabul where women are not allowed.
Ahmadi says she has complained to the Afghan Olympic Committee about the lack of proper training facilities available to women, but hasn’t received a response.
"It is like [The Afghan Olympic Committee] is telling us 'go knock on doors to find trainers, clubs and funding. Only then will we consider whether you will qualify [for the Olympics],'" she said. "They are not ready to understand that it is important that women represent Afghanistan [internationally]."
In addition, women face the risks traveling to and from their gyms due to the generally poor state of security, gender-based discrimination, domestic violence and oppression by radical Islamist groups in Afghanistan's patriarchal culture.
Ahamdi has encountered strong opposition within her community. Her mother and ten siblings have always supported her passion for taekwondo, but conservative relatives and neighbors still pressure her to give up on competitive sports.
"Some of our neighbors spread rumors about me. Many times, men from our neighborhood have tried to harass me and misbehaved," she said.
The International Olympic Committee [IOC] charter states that the organization aims "to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures, with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women."
Through successful negotiations in 2012, the IOC managed to encourage some conservative Islamic countries such Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei to send women competitors to London, although they did not qualify for the Olympics in their trials.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2002, the IOC lifted a 1999 ban on Afghanistan that had prevented its athletes from participating in the 2000 Sydney games. The ban was prompted by the Taliban regime's discrimination against women.
Afghanistan has since sent only three women to the Olympics, two for athletics and one in Judo, none of whom medaled. Afghan men took home bronze medals in taekwondo in the 2008 and 2012 games.
Ahmadi says Afghan women athletes are ready to compete in Rio to continue contributing to their country's sporting achievements.
"How can Afghanistan expect to shine in Rio when no women will represent it?" she asked.
Sprinter Tahimna Kohistani competed at the 2012 Olympics in London, and she shared similar concerns in an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan.
She said that the Afghan National Olympic Committee (ANOC) lacks a plan to prepare athletes for the Rio Games.
"Well-trained female athletes could positively contribute to how the world currently perceives Afghanistan, but time is running out," she warned.
The ANOC, however, denied allegations of discrimination against female athletes. The organization's spokesman Ramin Salik says the committee is facing significant financial constraints as a result of deep cuts in the Afghan government’s budget and international aid as foreign troops prepare to leave.
"We suffer from financial problems. It is not just about women and affects all [forms of sports]," he said. "We do not prioritize players based on gender. Anyone who qualifies will go to Brazil."
Salik said it is too early to predict who will represent Afghanistan in Rio.
"I think we have plenty of time to plan and prepare. Participants will be selected and notified through a qualifying process."
But it is not clear yet when the committee plans to begin qualifying competitions to choose the athletes.
Ahmadi will test for her fourth-degree black belt soon, and despite the uncertainty surrounding her Olympic hopes, she continues to train hard on her flying sidekicks, sparring, and technique for smashing clay bricks. She hopes the payoff for her work be a spot on her country’s Olympic team.
Allowing women to perform in the international arena, she said, “showcases our belief in democracy, human rights and the rights of women."