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Afghan Bodybuilders Fear Taliban Restrictions Could Kill Their Popular Sport


Afghan bodybuilders perform during a Mr. Afghanistan competition in Kabul in 2012.

Mohammad has been sweating it out at the gym almost daily for the past four years in the hope of becoming a bodybuilder.

But since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, his dream has faded. Even though the militant group has allowed the sport, it has ordered bodybuilders to cover up their bulging biceps, six-packs, and chiseled thighs during training and competitions.

The Taliban is in conflict with everything that is beautiful."
-- Sajjad Nuristani, journalist and fitness trainer

Athletes and gym owners say the restrictions will kill the sport, which is focused on showcasing muscular development. In bodybuilding competitions worldwide, tanned athletes in tiny briefs flash their sculpted bodies.

Mohammad is outraged by the Taliban order, which requires bodybuilders to cover their abdominal muscles and limbs with loose-fitting garments even while working out in gyms.

"There are only men where we train," Mohammad, who did not reveal his full name for fear of retribution by the Taliban, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. "The Taliban order has no religious justification, but it creates many problems for us."

After the Taliban regime fell in 2001, bodybuilding become one of most popular sports in Afghanistan. Over 1,000 gyms sprung up across the war-torn country, including hundreds in the capital, Kabul, where huge posters of famous bodybuilders were visible in public.

An Afghan woman in a burqa walks past a gym billboard in Kabul. (file photo)
An Afghan woman in a burqa walks past a gym billboard in Kabul. (file photo)

When the Taliban regained power in August, hundreds of athletes and sports administrators fled their homeland, including top male athletes, as well as female soccer, volleyball, and basketball players.

Their fears were driven by the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan during the 1990s, when many sports were considered “against human dignity” and banned along with music, films, and other forms of entertainment.

This time, the Taliban has claimed that it will not ban any sport as long as it complies with its extreme interpretation of Islamic law. But it has not confirmed if it will allow women to play any sports.

The restrictions on bodybuilding are believed to be the first targeting a sport almost exclusively dominated by men.

'Not A Crime'

Afghan bodybuilders fear for the future of the sport under the Taliban. Competition organizers said a recent national bodybuilding contest in Kabul was held behind closed doors with a limited number of judges and no spectators to avoid the wrath of the Taliban.

Afghan athletes also say the militants’ restrictions will prevent them from participating in international competitions, where bodybuilders wear briefs to show off their muscles.

Award-winning Afghan bodybuilder Yasin Qaderi during a 2018 competition.
Award-winning Afghan bodybuilder Yasin Qaderi during a 2018 competition.

"In this sport, you have to monitor muscle growth while training," Mehdi, a university graduate and aspiring bodybuilder, told Radio Azadi. "This is important to measure the progress you make.”

The Taliban did not respond to Radio Azadi’s repeated requests for comment.

Afghans have taken to social media to vent their anger at the Taliban’s restrictions on bodybuilding.

"The Taliban is in conflict with everything that is beautiful," Sajjad Nuristani, a journalist and fitness trainer, tweeted on June 9 as he posted photos of himself working out. "Exercise and having a fit body [are] not a crime."

During its first stint in power from 1996-2001, the Taliban tolerated bodybuilding. But it required athletes to wear long trousers.

Restrictions On Appearance

The Taliban’s restrictions on bodybuilders are the latest attempt by the militant group to police the appearances of Afghan men and women in public.

Last month, the Taliban issued a decree that ordered all women to cover their faces by wearing an all-encompassing burqa or a niqab, which is common in the Arab Gulf states.

The Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice later extended the rules to female TV presenters, who must cover their faces while on the air.

Meanwhile, the Taliban's religious police have issued orders banning men in some parts of Afghanistan from shaving their beards and trimming their hair. The militants have also advised men not to wear Western-style clothes.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.

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