Bodybuilding: The pursuit of beauty in war-torn Kabul

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Afghan bodybuilders competing in a bodybuilding and fitness contest in Kabul. (AFP)
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Afghan bodybuilder Hares Mohammadi, 25, posing as he exercises at a gym in Kabul. (AFP)
Updated 25 June 2018
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Bodybuilding: The pursuit of beauty in war-torn Kabul

KABUL: Hindi music pumps from the speakers as dozens of Afghan men grunt and sweat their way through a workout beneath the watchful eye of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose muscle-bound image hangs from the wall.
The scene inside this Kabul gym is repeated at venues all round the capital, where bodybuilding has become ubiquitous since the fall of the Taliban regime.
The sport has a long tradition in Afghanistan, and was even tolerated by the Taliban when they ruled the country from 1996-2001 — so long as the men wore long trousers as they lifted.
But as security deteriorated and the initial euphoria after the US invasion dissipated into stress, trauma and loss, more and more young men took to the gym.
“Everyone, everywhere in Afghanistan, wants to have a beautiful body shape, and this sport is a favorite sport for every young man,” says Hares Mohammadi, a law and political science student turned champion bodybuilder who is also a trainer at one gym in Kabul.
The 25-year-old, dressed in grey, strikes different poses showing off his carefully honed muscles, and warms up his chest and shoulders ahead of a regional bodybuilding competition.
Despite a surge in bombings and suicide attacks, life goes on, he says, and young Afghans want to “make their mark.” One way is through sporting success.
So, along with Schwarzenegger, other stars from Hollywood and Bollywood such as Sylvester Stallone and Salman Khan are held up as heroes, and the gyms stay busy for hours, filled with music and camaraderie as men tone their bodies to perfection.
It was not always so.
Afghan bodybuilding legend Aziz Arezo reminisces about his time as a teenage lifter, when there were “very, very few people” in the capital who knew anything about the sport.
He himself was only inspired to take it up after seeing movies and posters featuring foreigners such as Schwarzenegger.
“Arnold was my... role model,” he says, smiling as he remembers how expensive postcards featuring the star were.
Speaking to AFP between lifting weights at his small gym in Kabul, Arezo — his physique not quite what it was in his glorious bodybuilding past — reels off his long list of accolades, including being named Afghanistan’s first master sport bodybuilder by the country’s Olympic Committee in the 1970s.
It is a long career, and at times a lonely one.
Though now a trainer himself, guiding hundreds of Afghan youths through lifts and crunches, he never had the guidance of one.
Years ago he made the equipment and dumbbells in his gym from spare car parts as there was no place to buy them.
“I have been a teacher of myself,” he says, adding that his dumbbells are “more efficient than foreign dumbbells.”
Under Taliban rule, he worked for four months in Kabul before eventually fleeing again, fearing their restrictions despite their views on bodybuilding.
“Nowadays, bodybuilding clubs are everywhere in the city, and everyone has made a gym of his own,” he says.
He has trained hundreds of bodybuilders in his career, but is suspicious of new methods employed by many young Afghans, including taking protein supplements to boost their abilities.
“I believe if you do sport or exercise naturally, it is better than protein,” he says, warning of detrimental side effects.
“Before my workout... I was drinking carrot and banana juice, and post-training, I was taking two eggs, three glasses of milk, one bowl of beans and lentils, and it was everyday food for me,” he says.
“Today’s bodybuilding is not natural.”
Regardless of the method, sport can help ease the psychological trauma of nearly four decades of war, says Ali Fitrat, a psychology professor at Kabul University.
Afghans are stressed socially, culturally, financially and politically, he said, citing fighting, insecurity and poor economic conditions as some of the most devastating factors.
As such, he says sports such as bodybuilding can play a “vital role.”
But, like Mohammadi, he also suggests that young men in particular have a strong desire to make their mark.
“They want to show their bodies, they want to attract the attention of the people, and they want to have different looks and to look different than the others,” he said.
However, security continues to deteriorate in Kabul, where both the Taliban and Daesh have stepped up their attacks.
Many fearful residents now limit their movements. Arezo says his gym’s membership has shrunk.
“Nowadays people are concerned about fleeing the country rather than taking up sport,” he says.


’No place for a mother’: S. Korea battles to raise birth rate

(FILES) This photo taken on March 22, 2016 shows a child gesturing to a woman at Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul. (AFP)
Updated 18 December 2018
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’No place for a mother’: S. Korea battles to raise birth rate

  • Now 27, she has been rejected at several job interviews as soon as she revealed she had a child, and has given up seeking employment, trying to set up her own trading business instead

SEOUL: When Ashley Park started her marketing job at a Seoul drugmaker she had a near-perfect college record, flawless English, and got on well with her colleagues — none of which mattered to her employer once she fell pregnant.
Nine months after she joined, Park said, “They said to my face that there is no place in the company for a woman with a child, so I needed to quit.”
All the women working at the firm were single or childless, she suddenly realized, and mostly below 40.
Park’s case exemplifies why so many South Korean women are put off marriage and childbirth, pushing the country’s birth rate — one of the world’s lowest — ever further down.
Earlier this month Seoul announced its latest set of measures to try to stem the decline, but critics say they will have little to no effect in the face of deep-seated underlying causes.
Many South Korean firms are reluctant to employ mothers, doubting their commitment to the company and fearing that they will not put in the long hours that are standard in the country — as well as to avoid paying for their legally-entitled birth leave.
When Park refused to quit, her boss relentlessly bullied her — banning her from attending business meetings and ignoring her at the office “like I was an invisible ghost” — and management threatened to fire her husband, who worked at the same company.
After fighting for about six months, she finally relented and offered her resignation, giving birth to a daughter a month later. Aside from a brief stint at an IT start-up that did not keep its promise of flexible working hours, she has been a stay-at-home mother ever since.
“I studied and worked so hard for years to get a job when youth unemployment was so high, and enjoyed my work so much... and look what happened to me,” Park told AFP.
Now 27, she has been rejected at several job interviews as soon as she revealed she had a child, and has given up seeking employment, trying to set up her own trading business instead.
“The government kept telling women to have more children... but how, in a country like this?” she asked.

The South’s fertility rate — the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime — fell to 0.95 in the third quarter of 2018, the first time it has dropped below 1 and far short of the 2.1 needed to maintain stability.
As a result of the trend, which has been dubbed a “birth strike” by women, the population of the world’s 11th largest economy, currently 51 million, is expected to start falling in 2028.
Many cite reasons ranging from the expense of child-rearing, high youth unemployment, long working hours and limited daycare to career setbacks for working mothers.
Even if women hold on to their jobs, they bear a double burden of carrying out the brunt of household chores.
Patriarchal values remain deeply ingrained in the South: nearly 85 percent of South Korean men back the idea of women working, according to a state survey, but that plummets to 47 percent when asked whether they would support their own wives having a job.
Employment rates for married men and women are dramatically different — 82 percent and 53 percent respectively.
Now nearly three-quarters of South Korean women aged 20-40 see marriage as unnecessary, an opinion poll by a financial magazine and a recruitment website showed. But almost all children in the South are born in wedlock.

Against that backdrop, the South’s government has spent a whopping 136 trillion won ($121 billion) since 2005 to try to boost the birth rate, mostly through campaigns to encourage more young people to wed and reproduce, without success.
Earlier this month it announced yet another round of measures.
They included expanding child subsidies of up to 300,000 won ($270) a month, and allowing parents with children younger than eight to work an hour less each day to take care of their offspring.
More daycare centers and kindergartens will be built, and men will be allowed — but not obliged — to take 10 days of paid birth leave, up from the current three.
But many measures were not legally binding and carried no punishment for firms that denied their workers the promised benefits, and the package met a disdainful response.
“The government policies are based on this simplistic assumption that ‘if we give more money, people would have more children’,” the Korea Women Workers Association said in a statement.
Seoul should first address “relentless sexual discrimination at work and the double burden of work and housechores” for women, it added.
The centrist Korea Times newspaper also questioned whether such “lacklustre” state policies would bring in real change unless the government tackled the real drivers of women shunning marriage and childbirth.
“Unless these harsh conditions for women change, no amount of government subsidies will convince women having children is a happy choice.”