Sadaf has a bit of a swagger as she moves. Her dark hair is pulled off her face and her pale pink headscarf is tied tightly in a way that reminds me of my sister’s soccer team in Colorado rather than a typical Afghan girl in Kabul. But Sadaf is not a typical Afghan girl. And neither are the other twenty or so girls gathered in the dark, leaky basement of Kabul Stadium with their trainer, former Afghan boxing champion Saber Sharifi.
I’ve come to Kabul Stadium, most famous for its use as the site for public executions under the Taliban, to see the strength of Afghan girls personified in sport. Boxing.
Sadaf is 17 years old and has been boxing here for four years. She and the other girls go through a half hearted warm up but come alive when its time to don red boxing gloves and their swagger emerges. Shoulders loose, punches strong, and feet quick – their body’s exude confidence not seen elsewhere in Afghanistan. They are all dressed conservatively, with long pants and long sleeves accompanying sheer headscarves which during bouts they trade for traditional boxing headgear.
“Their fight represents the fight that all women in Afghanistan are facing daily,” says Saber as the girls pair off and spar, jabs and punches flying through the room along with their headscarves, many of which end sliding off their heads and spend the rest of the practice around their necks or on the floor in the corner. He is genuinely invested in these girls and his pride is undeniable. When asked what they need most, he replies with a wry smile. ”There are a lot of things they need. A female boxing trainer would be first, but that is very difficult to find someone willing to come here to work with the girls. But also equipment and money to build the program and fund their girls travel outside of Afghanistan to compete. We are building a program, but like most things in Afghanistan, with little resources.”
As I watch the girls train, a group of boys have gathered on the sidewalk above the basement training room, and are looking in through the one cracked window. Saber shouts and waves them off, but they are slow to move, the novelty of girls boxing apparent. Sadaf has already boxed outside of Afghanistan in three countries to hone her skills and learn from more experienced boxers. She played soccer for a couple years and then discovered boxing. Two of the girls are Olympic hopefuls for London next year. A historic double as its the first Olympics that women’s boxing has been included. They won’t be alone, as female athletes in judo and taekwando are expected to join them in London. Showing the world the strength of Afghanistan is in the girls.