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Afghan Women Take Up Fencing To Parry Prejudice

Afghan girls practice their daily training at a fencing club in Kabul on March 4.
Afghan girls practice their daily training at a fencing club in Kabul on March 4.

In the national sports stadium in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, two women stand off, foils circling and their faces covered with protective wire masks.

It’s not easy for women to take part in sports in Afghanistan, and it takes special dedication to put the hours in to do well, let alone in something like fencing, which only broke into the Afghan relative mainstream just over 10 years ago.

"Everyone has a goal, and mine is to improve through this sport of fencing," said 18-year-old Fariha Alizada, a member of the Afghan national fencing team set up just two years ago. "Sport is not only reserved for men. Women can also do it, and they have the right to learn."

Despite a shift in public attitudes since the Taliban’s hard-line Islamist regime was ousted in 2001, there is still widespread disapproval in Afghanistan of women and girls taking part in activities outside the home.

For those hoping to get involved in a sport, such attitudes are severely limiting. While sports such as fencing or martial arts, which are indoor and leave the body entirely covered, are easier than others like swimming or running, it requires determination to keep going in the face of widespread prejudice.

"Whenever women and girls go out, men keep harassing them and usually they use bad words for girls," said 16-year-old Arghawan Alizada. "Because of all these issues, girls can't dare to go out, although we ignore these challenges and problems."

Yaqeen Haqiqat, the girls’ trainer, said the sport, which only came to Afghanistan in 2004, is expensive, with equipment and proper gym facilities in short supply. But he has big hopes for his athletes.

"I've worked with the girls to make them better, and I hope they can win medals for Afghanistan," he said.

Written by Sayed Hassib for Reuters