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Afghan Woman Aims to Attend 2020 Olympics and Bring Home Medals.

Updated: Apr 1, 2019

Photo courtesy of Sadia

In many countries, cultural and religious values place women in traditional roles where they play “homemaker” rather than playing sports or working outside the house. Societal pressure still frightens women who challenge defined gender norms within their countries. Afghanistan is one such country where misogyny and gender discrimination are not only common but considered normal. Sadia Bedil Sadi and many other Afghan women like her continue to challenge traditional mindsets and work to redefine femininity. In today’s Afghanistan, women play numerous sports, act and sing, serve in the army, fly commercial airplanes, drive taxis, run for political office, and own businesses. Also, for the first time in history, a woman is the lead conductor for the National Women’s Orchestra. These are the women that give us all hope for Afghanistan’s future, and Sadia is foremost among them.

Sadia started playing sports in school with the support of one of her basketball coaches. She became the Captain of her school basketball team within a year and was later recruited by her school’s track and field team to compete in a competition organized by the Afghan Olympic Committee. Sadia excelled in this competition where she had the best 100 and 200-meter run times in Kabul, and she was selected for the Afghan Women’s National Track and Field Team. Due to her athletic ability, leadership, and hard work, Sadia was also appointed as the first woman coach of the Women’s National Track and Field Team, and she led them at the 2016 South Asian Games in India.

“We are past the time where Afghanistan can use women athletes as symbolic figureheads and send them to the Olympics without proper training or financial support and publicity.”

Sadia has been boxing for the past two years with the goal of representing Afghanistan in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Although her father does not know that she is training, she is determined to bring a medal home to prove to her family and the Afghan people that women are strong and capable of victory if they are taken seriously. Sadia insists that she does not want to attend the Olympics as a “symbol” just so a woman athlete from Afghanistan is present. She wants to compete and get results. For Sadia, representing Afghanistan and showing the world the strength and power of Afghan women athletes is more important than just showing up. Sadia is urging the Boxing Federation and Olympic Committee to invest seriously in women’s sports, and she is refusing to attend another competition unless suitable training and financial and emotional support are provided.

Photo courtesy of Sadia

Family Challenges

Despite her many achievements, Sadia’s family never supported her sports career, and her father to this day is still against her playing and coaching sports. In a patriarchal society like Afghanistan where men serve as authority figures in their families, it is incredibly difficult for women to do anything without their father or brother’s permission and approval. Unfortunately, Sadia is still fighting this battle with her own family and hopes this will not prevent her from playing sports in the future.

Sadia is the first woman in her family to play sports, attend university, work as a sports reporter, and to have general ownership of her life. Sadia comes from a very conservative family where women may have the opportunity to finish high school but are expected to get married and have children immediately afterwards. For Sadia’s family, traditional values are more important than her dream of going to the Olympics. Sadia’s father worries constantly about his honor and the community’s perception of the family, as well as his daughter’s safety. According to Sadia, her father believes in her capability as an athlete, but he is not ready to face the challenges her family will be exposed to once relatives and people in the community find out that she is boxing, a sport that most Afghans consider to be exclusively for men.

Despite these challenges, Sadia is risking her life by not allowing her family to determine her professional and boxing future. She continues to stand up to her family and the people of her community to redefine femininity and masculinity by playing sports. In the past, Sadia has missed many opportunities to run and compete internationally because her father prevented her from participating. Today, Sadia is not willing to make sacrifices anymore. She refuses to let anyone undermine her dream of attending the Olympics simply because she is a woman.

Photo courtesy of Sadia

Inequality and double standards

Sadia, like many other Afghan women athletes that I spoke with, complained about the lack of support and investment in women’s sports from the various sports federations and the Afghan Olympic Committee. How are women supposed to excel when sports federations are not willing to invest in women’s training and deny women access to the facilities and equipment provided to male athletes? Women athletes are frustrated and angry with this double standard because they do not receive equal treatment despite all of their hard work and dedication. The only reason we even have women athletes in Afghanistan today is because of their love for sports and their fierce determination to persevere. Unless we invest in Afghan women athletes, provide them with the same opportunities as men, and treat them with dignity and respect progress is not possible.

This is also true for women athletes around the world who are fighting for equality in pay, proper sporting facilities, and basic respect. Sadia wants people to recognize that women’s sports are a positive element in society that change women’s lives and build their confidence. In the future, Sadia hopes that her family and the people of Afghanistan will look beyond the assumption that women athletes are inferior to men, and that the country will invest equally in women’s sports.

“I want afghan women to rewrite their history by bringing titles and medals home. I want to pave the way for the new generations,”

Photo courtesy of Sadia

Safety Issues

As a result of ongoing conflict within Afghanistan, women athletes face constant criticism and even risk their safety to represent Afghanistan and show the world a different side of our country. What have the Afghan Olympic Committee and sports federations done to make it safe for women to play sports? Unfortunately, the answer is very little. Many female athletes describe the environment in the Afghan Olympic Committee as toxic and unsafe. This must change.

Sports have historically been a means to bring people together regardless of age, gender, race, language, or ethnicity, and sports have been used to promote a more inclusive and peaceful society through team spirit and camaraderie. We have seen sports play an important role in all societies by building strong communication platforms that are used to promote a culture of tolerance, unity, and even gender equality. Sadia believes that we must continue to work towards progress, and she wants the Afghan Olympic Committee to commit to this process by creating a safe environment for women to participate in sports.

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