Teenage girl from Afghanistan to box at Olympics

Besides going after a medal in the boxing ring at the London

Olympics, Sadaf Rahimi will be taking a few punches in the fight

for equal rights for Afghan women.

There are female Afghan success stories, yet most women in

Afghanistan remain second-class citizens, many cloaked from

head-to-toe in blue burqas, some abused or hidden in their

homes.

Rahimi, a determined 17-year-old student, wants to become the

new face of Afghan women, gaining honor and dignity for herself and

other women in here war-torn country and improving their image

worldwide.

She will get her chance this summer in London, where women’s

boxing makes its Olympic debut.

”When we participate in the outside competitions, there is

pressure on us,” Rahimi said while training in a makeshift gym in

the Afghan capital. ”But I will try to show that an Afghan girl

can enter the ring and achieve a position for Afghanistan.”

In line with conservative norms for women in Afghanistan, Rahimi

is expecting to wear black tights under her boxing gear at the

Olympics to cover her knees. She trains for hours three days a

week, punching heavy bags and sparring with her teammates and

trainers.

They throw punches on faded pink and green mats covering a

concrete floor of a room in an Afghan sports stadium where the

hardline Taliban regime used to stage public executions. The female

boxers still don’t have a real boxing ring to hone their

skills.

After the Taliban banned women from participating in sporting

events, the International Olympic Committee suspended Afghanistan

from the games. Afghanistan missed the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as a

result. The Taliban were toppled in 2001 and the suspension was

lifted the following year. Afghanistan sent female athletes – for

the first time in its history – to the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

Rahimi, who has the support of her family in Kabul, is following

in the footsteps of Robina Muqimyar, the female Afghan runner who

competed in Athens. Another woman, Mehboda Ahdyar, was scheduled to

go to the 2008 Beijing Games but couldn’t compete because of

injuries.

”I am well aware that my opponents in the London 2012 Olympics

are more powerful and even twice as good as me, but I have prepared

myself to participate and win a medal,” said Rahimi, who started

boxing four years ago and won a silver medal during a boxing

competition in Tajikistan.

Female boxing is an unusual sport in a country like Afghanistan,

where most of the women are still struggling for their rights and

get little respect in the male-dominated society.

Recently in Baghlan province in the north, 15-year-old Sahar Gul

was locked up, beaten with cables and tortured by her husband and

in-laws after she refused to work as a prostitute. They deny any

wrongdoing. She became the bruised and bloodied face of women’s

rights in Afghanistan after being rescued in late December when an

uncle called police.

Her story shocked Afghanistan and prompted calls to end underage

marriage. The legal marriage age in Afghanistan is 16, but the

United Nations estimates that half of all girls are forced to marry

before their 16th birthday.

In Kunduz province, also in the north, a 30-year-old woman named

Storay was killed last month because she gave birth to a third baby

girl, instead of a boy. Storay, who used only one name, was slain,

allegedly by her husband, when her third child was 3 months old.

Her husband has left the family.

Despite such atrocities, there are increasing opportunities for

Afghan women who want to participate in sports, said Mohammad Saber

Sharifi, the coach of the Afghan female boxing team.

The team was established by the Afghan Olympic Committee in 2007

and so far has registered more than two dozen female boxers.

Rahimi, who fights in the 54-kilogram (118.8 pounds) weight

class, will get into the Olympics through a wild card berth. She

plans to travel to London on Feb. 19 to train for several weeks. In

May she will fight in a competition in China, but win or lose

there, she will be at the Olympics in London.

”Sadaf Rahimi is the only girl who will participate in these

games,” Sharifi said. ”She will represent all Afghan women, which

makes her the biggest female personality in Afghanistan.”

Things have been much easier for male athletes in

Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s first Olympic medal winner was Rohullah Nikpai,

who won a bronze medal in men’s taekwondo in 2008, defeating rivals

from Germany, England and Spanish world champion Juan Antonio Ramos

at the Beijing Games.

Because of insecurity in Afghanistan, his family fled to Iran

where he grew up. He returned to Afghanistan in 2004 – four years

after the Taliban government collapsed. After participating in

Beijing, he became a symbol of national pride.

”In the 2008 Olympics, I won a bronze medal and I am hopeful to

win a gold medal in the Olympic 2012 in London,” Nikpai said.

Two other male athletes will round out the foursome who will

represent Afghanistan in this year’s games. Massoud Azizi, a

25-year-old, 100-meter sprinter who competed in 2008 in Beijing,

and Nasar Ahmad Bahawi, another taekwondo fighter.

”The people are expecting a lot from us. We know we will face

the hardest opponents,” said Bahawi, who practices inside a newly

built gym at the sports stadium under the supervision of a foreign

coach and Afghan trainer. ”We have the prayers of our people, and

God willing, we will do well.”