Three Women You Didn’t Know Paved the Way: Gender Equality Through Sports in Ultraconservative Countries

Participation in sports has enormous potential to empower girls. Through athletics, young women can learn essential life skills like teamwork, confidence, and leadership — the latter being a particularly important skill for girls in countries that rank low in gender equality.

Compared to other issues that women in developing countries face, the right to play sports seems trivial — but research and reports released by UNICEF show that participation in athletics reaps countless long-term benefits for girls. For example, playing sports has immense psychological benefits for girls, such as improved self image, increased self confidence, positive feelings and knowledge about one’s body, and a greater sense of self-ownership and respect. 

Participation in athletic activities could also have positive economic benefits for women. Girls who participate in sports tend to become sexually active later in life and have lower rates of teen pregnancy as a result. It also gives girls a way to release their stress; as a result, they tend to do better in their studies. Playing sports gives girls a leg up for their futures by delaying motherhood and equipping them to do better in school.

Sports also present a unique social opportunity to girls in developing countries. Compared to boys, many girls in more conservative cultures have fewer opportunities for social interaction outside their homes; playing a sport can provide them with an outlet to socialize with other girls. Female participation in athletics also challenges outdated gender stereotypes by dispelling myths about women’s physical capabilities and their roles as leaders and decision makers in society. 

In some developing countries — like Afghanistan and Pakistan — this opportunity is crucial. Afghanistan ranked 153 out of 160 countries in the 2017 Gender Inequality Index and Pakistan does not fare not much better, ranking at 133.

Here are three outstanding leaders who paved the way in Afghanistan and Pakistan and made huge strides toward gender equality by fighting for girls on the field.

Maria Toorpakay Wazir — Pakistan’s number one female squash player

Wazir grew up in a strict, ultraconservative tribal Pashtun community in South Waziristan, an area of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. Her community largely disapproved of women leaving their homes and girls playing outside, so female participation in sports was unthinkable. 

During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, mujahidin escaped to Waziristan. Consequently, it became a sanctuary for fundamentalist terrorists who hold outdated ultraconservative views that are particularly detrimental for women.

But nothing — not even a conservative culture or fear of the Taliban — could keep Toorpakai indoors. At the age of four, she burned her dresses, cut her hair, and began to wear her brother’s clothes so she could play outside. Her father gave her the pseudonym Genghis Khan, after the Mongol warrior. 

Toorpakai’s tenacity showed long before she picked up a racket to play squash. She beat boys in weightlifting competitions at the age of 12, becoming the number two ranked weightlifter in the country — competing as a boy, under the name Genghis Khan.

After her family moved to Peshawar when she was a teenager, her secret identity was revealed. No one wanted to sit with her to eat lunch at school, and she began facing harassment and threats from the Taliban. Nevertheless, she persisted. Wazir continued to pursue her dreams and demanded respect.

“I snatched that respect from them,” she says. “Well, they weren’t going to give it to me. I snatched it from them!”

Eventually, the threats from the Taliban were too much to bear. Toorpakai moved to Canada and continued competing there. In December 2012, she ranked 41st in the world in women’s squash.

After years of residing comfortably in Canada, Toorpakai announced that she decided to move back to Pakistan to take part in gender equality movements in her home country. 

Hanifa Yousoufi — the first Afghan woman to summit Mt. Noshaq

Hanifa was married off to an older Pakistani man when she was roughly fourteen. In multiple interviews, she described her marriage as abusive and said she escaped her marriage and fled back to Kabul after two years, depressed and anxious. For a couple years, she didn’t even leave the house. 

Everything changed when she found Ascend Athletics, a US-based nonprofit working in Afghanistan to empower young women and develop leaders through athletics. In an interview with the Sierra Club, Yousoufi said she “became more social” and began to blossom after starting her training with the mountaineering group. Yousoufi’s confidence and athleticism weren’t always there — in an interview with Outside Online, she admitted that she’d never done a single sit-up and was illiterate before she joined Ascend Athletics.

“I had some fears in the past, but now I feel very confident,” she said. “Before I started Ascend, I didn’t know how to read or write, but now I am taking classes to learn.”

Getting to the peak of Noshaq, which is at a staggering 24,580 feet, is no small feat. The elevation is only one of the many challenges mountaineers encounter on the trek. Noshaq was closed for over thirty years due to chaos during the Soviet invasion, civil war, and Taliban rule. It re-opened in 2009, but only three other Afghans have summited the mountain — and all of them were men. Yousoufi was determined to make history for women in her country by proving that girls can conquer steep summits too.

“Summiting Mt. Noshaq was important for me because I wanted to be a voice for Afghan women and show that Afghan women can do positive things in our country.”

Zeinab — the anonymous Afghan ultramarathoner

Zeinab was athletic from a young age. She grew up playing basketball and tried taekwondo in her youth. However, by the time she was roughly sixteen, almost all her teammates quit to get married. Then her women’s taekwondo team was shut down by state police.

In 2015, Free to Run, a non-profit that uses sports as a tool to develop female leaders in regions of conflict, recruited Zeinab to participate in the 2015 Gobi March — an excruciating, grueling 250-km race across the Gobi desert. She completed the run with her friend Nelofar after completing most of their training in their backyards, together becoming the first Afghan women ever to run an ultramarathon. Their next goal would be to run a marathon in the United States to fight for female participation in athletics.

Due to safety concerns and expectations that women should remain inside the home, Zeinab’s training routine mostly consisted of running laps around her family’s backyard, according to an interview with the Guardian. That didn’t keep Zeinab from participating in Afghanistan’s first marathon in 2015.

Despite being stoned by children, having insults screamed at her, and being told she is “destroying Islam,” Zeinab kept running. Worried about safety, Nelofar’s father forbade her from participating. Out of the 35 participants in Afghanistan’s first marathon, Zeinab was the only Afghan woman. 

In addition to the challenges she faced being the only woman attempting the marathon, Zeinab also had no time to acclimatize to the 10,000 foot elevation in Bamyan, the province where the marathon was held; she had only arrived 24 hours before the race. She only noticed how difficult it was going to be when she had trouble breathing at the starting line.

Despite the adversity she faced with the altitude, the harassment she faced in the streets the one time she did try to run in public in Kabul, and only starting her training as a runner earlier in 2015 — Zeinab finished the race.

Athletics are an important front in the battle for gender equality. Today, these heroes are making progress for women on top of mountains at 24,000 ft, in races, in the weightroom, and on the court. Leadership starts on the field, but doesn’t end there. Hopefully tomorrow the next generation of girls these women inspire will be making progress for women in public office.

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