No sweat: Afghans embrace first women-only gym in Taliban heartland

No sweat: Afghans embrace first women-only gym in Taliban heartland
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Maryam Durani, the founder of the first gym for women in Kandahar, speaks during an event in the province. (Image courtesy: Maryam Durani)
No sweat: Afghans embrace first women-only gym in Taliban heartland
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A customer exercises at the first gym for women in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province. (Supplied)
No sweat: Afghans embrace first women-only gym in Taliban heartland
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A customer exercises at the first gym for women in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province. (Supplied)
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Updated 04 October 2020

No sweat: Afghans embrace first women-only gym in Taliban heartland

No sweat: Afghans embrace first women-only gym in Taliban heartland
  • Owner of fitness centre in Kandahar province says that the response has been generally positive after initial hostility

KABUL: Kabul Rooshana Azizi checks the contents of her duffle bag one last time before taking a quick glance in the mirror to fix her hijab.

It’s almost time for her workout, and the 19-year-old is eager to try a new routine at the first women-only fitness center near her house in Kandahar — in fact the only one for women in the entire southwestern region of Afghanistan.

“My family has no objection at all. We wear the hijab from home to the club and, once inside, we put on regular sports clothes. The atmosphere of the club is very good. Initially, some men opposed it, but more and more of them now support this because (they have realized) it is good and essential for our health,” Azizi said.

She should know.

In Kandahar, a women-only gym in the province would have been unheard of up until a few years ago, where in some districts families still bar women from going to school, let alone to work outside the house or to a gym.

As the Taliban’s birthplace and a traditional seat of power for many of Afghanistan’s rulers in the past two-and-half centuries, even today almost all women in Kandahar appear in a burqa while outside the house.

When the insurgent group ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, before their ouster by US-led foreign troops, women were banned from seeking an education, in addition to other restrictions on their movement.

But thanks to concerted efforts by a strong advocate for women’s rights in the province, the women-only facility in the heart of the city has gained more acceptance.

“Following sabotage activities and hostile talk, I appeared on local media to discuss the necessity of such a facility, and now it has become accepted. Not only women, but men too support and defend me on social media,” Maryam Durani, 36, who runs the facility, told Arab News by phone from Kandahar.

It wasn’t easy in the early days of the gym, when unknown men would regularly threaten her on the phone and social media for setting up the facility.

Still, she did not give up.

Not new to questioning the norms in Kandahar’s patriarchal society, Durani is used to taking challenges head-on.

Besides running the fitness center, she also looks after the operations of a radio station for women and has served on the provincial council in Kandahar.

During her stint as a lawmaker, she survived two attacks in 2009 when Taliban suicide bombers raided the council’s compound. The attacks killed 20 people, and Durani and several other colleagues suffered injuries.

Her show of strength, over the years, has been worth it. In 2012, Durani was presented with the International Women of Courage Award by the former US First Lady Michelle Obama.

Durani said launching the gym had “long been on my mind,” but it took time to materialize due to budget constraints.

And while the facility has no armed guards and is run entirely by women, the overall response has been positive.

“I feel happy when I see that I have been able to help my fellow women physically and mentally,” she said.

Today, the fitness center is frequented by more than 30 women every day, a year after its launch.

She said a nominal fee is charged to cover the costs of the club. 

Although she has not received any threats from the Taliban to close down the facility, Durani says she is worried about the future of women in Afghanistan even as Taliban and government negotiators hold talks in Qatar to end the protracted conflict in the country.

“Like other people, I am hopeful for permanent peace in Afghanistan but, in addition to my hope, I am anxious about keeping my human rights and similarly the gains of women,” Durani said.

For now, her focus is to keep the gym running and work toward the “empowerment of women in Afghanistan and their self-sufficiency.”