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Afghan woman to compete at Olympics after ban

3/9/2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- At Afghanistan's national stadium,
girls in black outfits line the concrete running track, practicing
kung fu kicks. Nearby, others play basketball in jeans and
headscarves.

After suffering through war and Taliban repression, young Afghan
women and girls are returning to sports. This summer, at least one
novice athlete will realize a dream that would have been scoffed at
just four years ago: competing at the Olympics.

Robina Muqimyar, a 17-year-old high school student who runs the
100 meters, won't win a medal; her best time is more than 3 seconds
off the world record.

But merely crouching in the starting blocks during the Aug.
13-29 Olympics will be a triumph for a nation nursing the wounds of
decades of conflict and where many religious conservatives still
object to female athletes.

"If women take part in the Olympics, it shows this country is
progressing," said Neema Soratgar, a women's sports activist who
is expected to carry the Afghan flag at the opening ceremony in
Athens.

The Islamic country's gradual return to international
competition was heralded at track and field's world championships
in Paris last August, when Lima Azimi competed in the 100 meters.

Wearing long, baggy pants and unsure how to use the starting
blocks, Azimi finished last in 18.37 seconds, 7 seconds behind the
winner.

Soratgar, a volleyball and basketball player, used to run secret
exercise classes for women during the Taliban era -- moving to the
rhythm of music that was also banned by the fundamentalist Islamic
regime. She has been at the forefront of restarting women's sports
clubs since the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.

Within weeks of the Taliban's fall, Soratgar was running
exercise sessions for housewives at a high school gym.

"Rejoining the Olympic movement is an important part of
Afghanistan being a proper country again," added Stig Traavik, who
competed for Norway in judo at the 1992 Games and now advises the
Afghan National Olympic Committee.

Some families still frown on their daughters playing sports, but
track and field, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics and martial
arts are gaining in popularity.

On a spring day at the national stadium --here the soccer field
is scarred by the memory of public executions under Taliban rule --
18 girls do kung fu moves under their trainer's watch.

Green belt Rahima Hosseni, 14, who got interested in kung fu as
a refugee in Iran, pirouettes and punches the air.

"It might seem strange to some men that I do kung fu, but I
don't care,"said Khadija Shuja-ee, 18.

She's a trainee policewoman and said she took up kung fu four
months ago to learn how to protect herself.

"The situation is a lot better now than it was under the
Taliban," she said.

Still, there are those who object.

Abdul Matin Mutasem Bilal, a mullah at Kabul's Abu Bakar Sidiq
Mosque, said no Afghan women should go to the Olympics, arguing
that the strict Islamic dress code requires that all but a woman's
hands, feet and face be covered.

"When I tell you that her neighbor shouldn't see all her face,
how should thousands of foreigners, non-Muslims, in a big stadium,
be allowed to see her body?" he said.

Zia Dashti, the Afghan Olympic committee's vice president, is
sensitive to such concerns.

"We don't care so much about the headscarf, but wearing a
tracksuit is important. A woman athlete cannot show her legs," he
said. "If that happens, mullahs will complain that we are sending
women to run without clothes.

Afghanistan, which has never won an Olympic medal, was banned
from the 2000 Sydney Olympics because the Taliban regime outlawed
women from sports. The country participated in the 1996 Atlanta
Games, but years of war robbed its athletes of most training
facilities.

Traavik said Afghanistan sports authorities don't have complete
records, but it appears that no Afghan woman has appeared at the
Olympics -- although a generation ago, it was a relatively liberal
society where women took part in sports.

"Twenty-five years ago, Afghanistan was not what it is now,"
said Aqala Shirzad, 46, a physical education teacher at a Kabul
high school. "We were able to compete freely."