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Afghan girls punch their way to equality

NBC News

Sadaf Rahimi, in pink, throws a punch with her older sister, Shabnam, in the background on Dec. 17, 2011. They are working out in the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan.

KABUL – It was known as the stadium of death. Ghazi Stadium was where the Taliban held public executions, stonings and mutilations during their brutal rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. This once blood-soaked pitch is now a field of dreams. 

The stadium was recently reopened after a U.S.- funded refurbishment and thousands of Afghan athletes gathered to celebrate the event.

It is impossible to forget the dark history of this arena, but Mohammed Sabher Sharifi is determined to move on.  

"There were many people killed, especially women. Now it is for the young generation of sportsmen, especially the females,” Sharifi said Sunday as he pointed toward an Olympic flag which stands next to the Afghan flag and will remain there until the 2012 games.

As a member of the Afghan National Olympic committee and coach of the women's boxing team, Sharifi faces a daunting task. He wants to create a winning team of female boxers.

Every afternoon, in the basement of Ghazi Stadium, in a small, dusty room with battered punch bags and cracked mirrors he oversees 20 teenage girls, as they jump, jog, jab and thrust.

Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images

Afghan boxing coach Sabher Sharifi trains girls as they take part in a boxing training session at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul in January 2011.

Photoblog: Young Afghan women at boxing training session in Kabul

"Yes, you see, the girls, they can do anything – and look at their strong punches!” he exclaimed.

The young Afghan boxers arrive at practice fully covered, looking like demure young ladies, but within 10 minutes of starting their rigorous workout, their headscarves are cast off, and they look like sportswomen from all over the world, glowing with health and beaming with hope.

The stars of the team are the Rahimi sisters – 18-year-old Shabnam and 17-year-old Sadaf. At the recent World Boxing Championship in Tajikistan, Shabnam won a gold medal and Sadaf a silver medal, making Afghan sports history.

Boxing is an unusual choice for any young woman, anywhere in the world, but in deeply conservative Afghanistan, it is an act of courage.

“Yes, we have a lot of problems. Here in Afghanistan they think we should stay home, not go to school, and never boxing,” said Sadaf. She said they have received threatening phone calls, but that has not stopped them.

Shabnam, her older sister, said she boxes not just for herself, but for her country. “My dream is that I should represent my country all over the world, especially in the Olympics, raising the flag for my country.”   

Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images

Afghan girls practice during a boxing training session in Ghazi Stadium in Kabul in January 2011.

She brushed aside local criticism of female boxing. "I just want to box, shoulder to shoulder with the men, and show I can do it." 
Her sister, Sadaf, added, "When we were little, we had a male cousin who was a boxer, and we wanted to be like him."

They both realize that they are among the first generation of women to be granted this opportunity to fight; women boxing in public or competing in sports was a punishable offense under the Taliban. Women's boxing is a new Olympic sport, too.  The International Olympic Committee only voted to include women's boxing in the 2012 Summer Games in London in August 2009.

Coach Sharifi said he has faith in his team, but that they need help, especially financially.  

"We get $1 a day for each athlete. What shall we do? We have poor equipment, we cannot train like others," he said. The team cannot afford to buy decent punching bags, let alone build a proper boxing ring.

Shah Marai / AFP - Getty Images

Young Afghan wrestlers compete in a bout at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul on May 12, 2011. The Ghazi stadium has returned to its former status as Kabul's premier sporting venue after being used for public executions by the Taliban during the late 1990s.

But Shabnam remains optimistic. Raising her fists in the air, and with halting English she said, "I see you London 2012!"

The sisters may not win medals at the Olympic Games.  Indeed they may not even qualify for the games. They need to win their places in May at the World Boxing Championships in Qinhuangdao, China.

But they have already won a victory: They have shown what Afghan young women who pack a punch can achieve. The Olympic dream is theirs.

Related link: Afghanistan’s National Olympic Committee web site