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Leader of Afghan women’s sport: Playing is political (and potentially life-threatening)

May 28, 2010 – 9:00 AM

Nasrin Arbabzadeh

By Sarah Odell and Lindsay Rico

Nasrin Arbabzadeh, the leader of the Afghan women’s sports delegation, has been actively working for years for the rights of Afghan women to complete in sports. In 2001, she traveled from city to city recruiting women to compete in the the Third Muslim Women Games. At the time, she told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that she wore a burqa so as not to draw attention to her work. “My life would have been in danger if the Taliban had learned of my activities and my purpose,” she said.

During the opening ceremonies of those games, organizers staged a black out and many athletes wore black mourning clothing and carried candles as a sign of support for the 48 Afghan delegates. Their participation was a symbol of political resistance. “I’m competing here to denounce the Taliban’s uncivilized treatment of women in the name of Islam,” Salma Hosseini, tae kwan do silver medalist, announced at the time.

Last week, at the Fifth World Conference on Women & Sport in Sydney, Ababzadeh stood in a question and answer period, and sought insight into how to develop, support, and train female athletes in Afghanistan. “Does anybody know about the women in Afghanistan?” she asked. The hall was silent.

FGN spoke with Arbabzadeh about her work and the challenges for female athletes in her native country.

FGN: In Afghanistan, what kinds of sports do women compete in?

NA: They play football (Soccer), badminton, basketball, taekwondo, and volleyball. But it’s very hard for them. At first, their families are not happy and they make it difficult for the girls to play. But when these girls bring home medals and awards, then their parents are happy for them.

FGN: What are some of the challenges these girls and women experience?

NA: The difficulties don’t end with the family. Most of our athletes don’t have the right clothes, shoes, or food. And athletes who have become successful are often threatened. Sixty percent of people are happy with them, forty percent are not. People think they are bad girls because they have chosen to participate in athletics.

FGN:What is your role in women’s sports in Afganistan. Who has been important to your work?

NA: I am the first woman to start sports for girls in Afghanistan. I am so happy with Faezah Hashemi, the Iranian president of the Islamic Federation of Women Sport. She has helped lots of young women within the federation, regardless of what country they come from.

FGN: How did you first get girls involved in athletics?

NA: In 2001 I collected young girls who wanted to play sports brought them to the Muslim women games in Iran. The girls competed in volleyball, tae kwan doe, shooting, tennis, running, chess, and badminton. I paid for everything so my teams could go to this competition. The girls and their families were so happy, because in Afghanistan, there are no teams that allow women. But leaders in Afghanistan  did not like what I was doing and I received threats, so [after the games] I went back to Iran.

FGN: Who was behind the threats? Why were you threatened?

NA: The Olympic manager.  He did not have a lot of experience. He saw that I had experience and knowledge. I saw many things I wanted to change. I saw the disabled athletes had terrible equipment. I wanted to help them. I asked him why they did not have better equipment and he did not like that. He told my husband that if I had any more things to say about the Olympic management or problems, he would kill me.

Arbabzadeh now lives abroad, in Australia, and serves on the Women with Special Needs Committee for the Islamic Federation of Women Sport.

FGN's Rico & Odell talk with Arbabzadeh

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