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Afghan Paragliders Take to Kabul Skies

Afghan paraglider Zakia Mohammadi flies in Kabul on September 14.
Afghan paraglider Zakia Mohammadi flies in Kabul on September 14.

To the claps and cheers of dozens of teenage onlookers, Zakia Mohammadi -- a member of Afghanistan’s first national paragliding team -- waits on a Kabul hilltop for the right gust of wind.

Taking to skies more often populated by military helicopters, she is one of many women in conservative Afghan society who are joining in fields in education, sports, and the workplace while still wearing the traditional head-to-toe burqa.

"When I went up to the sky, I thought I was a bird which had just been freed from a cage," said Mohammadi, one of two women in the newly established team of 15 that includes two trainers. "I really enjoyed it."

Under the militant Islamist rule of the Taliban in the 1990s, women were prevented from taking part in Afghanistan’s schools, universities, and public life; even leaving the home unaccompanied by a man was forbidden.

"When women see me they don't believe that an Afghan woman can do this," said Leeda Ozori, the other woman in the team. "The situation is not good, there is no security, but I am brave and I can do it."

"When we first came here, children were pelting us with stones," paragliding trainer Mehran Rahbari said from atop the hill in Kabul. "But later, when they found out we were coming here for sports, they stopped throwing stones at us. Now they love us."

Afghan paraglider Zakia Mohammadi prepares to take flight in Kabul.
Afghan paraglider Zakia Mohammadi prepares to take flight in Kabul.

Taking up paragliding as a hobby, however, is not cheap, especially considering Kabul’s average wage is roughly $200 a month. The price of equipment can run up to $5,000, and even the two weeks of training costs $500.

Reaching the liftoff points can take hours of driving over inadequate roads in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, while an army vehicle carries the team’s equipment. They are accompanied by a police escort to ward off potential attacks.

Despite each craft being equipped with a radio and steering mechanism, the paragliders’ most vulnerable moments come when they are aloft.

"We fly for around 20 minutes in the sky and sometimes we fly over people's houses," said Naweed Popal, who pooled his cash to set up the group just over three years ago. "We are concerned that if something happens, we will find ourselves with no means of defense."

The team would like to expand to other provinces, but concerns over security limit it to the capital for the time being.

"We cannot go anywhere outside Kabul," said Iranian trainer Rahbari. "We are afraid if we go out and get attacked, one bullet can end all our efforts."

The women on the team, however, remain undeterred.

"Our idea is to show to the world that Afghan women, although living in war and insecurity, have the ability to improve and become developed," said Mohammadi.

Reporting by Mirwais Harooni for Reuters