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Afghan Girls Throw Punches, Aim For Olympic Gold

Afghan Female Boxers Fight Their Way Toward Olympics
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Women in Afghanistan have been fighting for more rights at home and in society since the Taliban was toppled a decade ago.

Shabnam, 19, and her sister Sadaf Rahimi, 18, are taking the fight more literally than most of their peers, throwing punches in a ring as members of their country's first team of female boxers.

They practice inside a spartan gym with broken mirrors, flaking paint, four punching bags, and a concrete floor padded with faded pink and green mats. Some girls even wear facemasks to keep away the dust coming up from the floor.

But they seem oblivious to their modest surroundings as they follow the whistle changes of a rigorous training routine.

Sadaf, slightly out of breath from punching the bag, says: "I hope to promote my boxing career and approach the highest level. I wish to be able to win the gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics."

Female boxing is still relatively unusual in most countries, but especially in Afghanistan, where many girls and women still face a struggle to secure an education or work, and activists say violence and abuse at home is common.

Taliban Remnants

Three times a week, the girls come to practice at the Ghazi stadium, once used for public punishment by the Taliban, the hard-line Islamists who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.

Women were stoned for adultery there and despite an expensive revamp, its gory past sometimes spooks the athletes.

Under the Taliban, all sports for women were banned. They still have far fewer opportunities for exercise than men.

A female boxer takes part in a practice session in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics at a gym in Kabul.
A female boxer takes part in a practice session in preparation for the London 2012 Olympics at a gym in Kabul.
Many in this conservative society still consider fighting taboo for women, and the girls deal with serious threats.

"My family has been threatened several times because we three sisters are in the boxing club. They asked my family why the three girls from one family are boxing," Sadaf explains.

"Boxing is a hard and difficult sport even for men. That is why people are surprised and our family was threatened because of our choice."

They did not return to training for a month after the threats, until their trainer offered to organize transport for the girls, and still limit workouts to the gym, where the government provides security.

Fighting For London

The team was created in 2007 by Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee to challenge stereotypes and encourage girls to stand up for what they believe in.

The biggest hope is to reach the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where women's boxing will debut as a medal sport, but a tough qualification round in China in May stands in the way.

Shabnam won her first gold medal at a five-nation international competition in Tajikistan in October 2011, where her younger sister also took silver.

"The female boxing club was established four years ago," says Nisar Ahmad Qari Zada, one of the girls' trainers. "These female boxers exercise three days a week. There are about 25 female boxers registered with the boxing federation."

The team received some financial support from the Olympic Committee and a local nongovernmental group, Cooperation for Peace and Unity, but supplies are still scarce.

Qari Zada hopes for support from the government and private business to build a boxing ring, get better equipment, and send the girls to international meets to hone their skills.

based on a Reuters report
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