Nineteen-year-old Afghan boxer Sadaf Rahimi slams her punching bag deep in the bowels of Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium, dealing blows to gender stereotyping and doing her part to to exorcise history: It was on these very grounds that the Taliban carried out public executions.
Sadaf, whose shy gaze seems at odds with her muscular 60kg frame, pulls on her gloves. A liberating spasm accompanies each blow that crushes the leather mitts of trainer Agha Gul Alamyar.
Sadaf is a brilliant boxer, but she is also an exception in a conservative Muslim country where women participating in sport is taboo.
At all of 19 years of age — seven of which she has spent in the ring — Sadaf sees a moral obligation “to prove that men and women can be equal. Girls are not forced to stay at home.”
Born to a middle-class family from the Tajik ethnic group, Sadaf had to first make the case for boxing — which she discovered by watching Mike Tyson and Laila Ali on TV — to those closest to her.
“At first my family was opposed to me boxing. They were saying: ‘Why is a girl boxing? She should stay home, do the chores and cook.’ My aunt is still against it,” says the young woman, who is also pursuing a degree in economics.
She is taking a stand on misogyny and against the darkest hours of Afghan history, by training inside Ghazi stadium, which the Taliban used for their public executions during their 1996 to 2001 regime.
Like other young women, Sadaf has to contend with poor equipment and basic infrastructure. The mats are threadbare and the gloves and punching bags are old and worn out.
The federation currently counts only 20 women in its ranks.
To boost the sport among women, Sadaf wants to set up her own club and become a trainer, but first she must mount the podium in international competitions, a distant dream. She has brought home three bronze medals in regional competitions, but is not yet up to Olympic standard — the sport’s Holy Grail.
In 2012, Sadaf lied to accept an invitation by the Olympics organizer, but the International Boxing Association eventually did not allow her to leave for London, fearing her better-trained opponents could seriously injure her.
And this year, she will not be going to Rio. This time around the reasons are more prosaic — her defeat in the South Asian Games in India in the middle of last month means she will not be Olympics bound.
“I am disappointed,” she said. “In India, I was completely alone. No trainer came with me, I had no support at all.”
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