I was unsure of what to expect the first time I stepped into a women’s gym in Kabul. While I've known a lot of women in Kabul to be vivacious (contrary to how the media often portrays them)—especially in gender-segregated spaces—there are still few who are considered to be athletic. Of course, there are Afghan women who’ve consistently broken stereotypes and excelled as athletes, yet they remain a minority that has to continue to struggle against a system that works against them.
As I approached the tiny office of the gym instructor at the end of a wide room filled with all sorts of exercising equipments and the women working on their gains, I wondered if we were still in Kabul. Many were dressed in tracksuits with matching sneakers, others in shorts and tank tops, and yet others in the traditional salwaar kameez native to this region.
There was music playing—Justin Bieber, I think—and there was a lot of chatter. In the corner, there was a crib that held three children between the ages of 1 and 3 being looked after by a teenage girl who also appeared to be running the juice bar next to it. As I changed into my basic gym wear, I noticed that the coat rack held long black coats, black abayas and the blue burqas. A lot of the women tell me they’re required permission from their families, especially their male guardians, to be able to go to the gym. This also meant that, for some, attending the gym was an act of defiance—moving in and out of the establishment discreetly and anonymously.
That day, I met Parwin Sofi, a 70-year-old grandmother who has been running a women’s gym for the last ten years in Kabul’s Soviet-built settlement of Macroryan. Sofi has been on women’s health and fitness for more than four decades—roughly the same period as the war in Afghanistan. “I used to be a very good volleyball player in high school and played for the national team. Later I started coaching younger girls, but had to stop when the war started,” she recalls.
Sofi’s passion for sports not only enabled her physically, but also empowered her mentally—she didn’t give in easily to the demands of the male-dominated society around her. It gave her the strength to continue practicing and training, often in secret. As she shares her story, several young women enter the gym—a wide barn that, at one point, was a yard for the men’s gymnasium next door. “This was the only space that we could find. For a long time, it didn’t even have a roof," she recalls, "so we had to shut it down during rain and snow."
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The setup is simple: A concrete floor covered in colorful, handmade Persian carpets. There are two elliptical trainers, four stationary cycles, and four treadmills, as well as an assortment of dumbbells, hula hoops, and other exercise equipment used by about 100 women every week. “Some of the equipment was bought with the donation of the community, but I paid for the roof on my own,” she says, helping one woman onto an ab machine.
Then she drops to the floor and demonstrates a yoga posture—uttanasana—bending her torso to touch her feet with the agility of a ballerina. She has stamina that even the youngest women in the gym can’t match. They giggle a little at the idea of replicating the pose, but follow her lead.
Despite the years of conflict, Sofi never left Afghanistan. “During the worst of times, the Taliban regime, my husband and I decided to move to Kandahar,” she says, referring to the ancient city used by the Taliban as the capital. Sofi began her work there as a midwife and later as a nurse at a time when there were severe restrictions on working women.
As Afghanistan slipped further into war in the early 2000s, Sofi observed that the opportunities for women to have access to such spaces was dwindling. “Afghan[s] have so many health problems; issues with stamina, back pains, joint pains. It [could be] because a lot of them have closed lives at homes with little to do with the outside. Even the streets are unwelcoming to them and they often don’t get to walk as much as they should,” she says. “This apart from the general gloom and depression that surrounds their daily life.”
Some of Sofi’s clients are referred by doctors who’ve diagnosed women with depression and other mental health conditions. “The rockets might not have damaged their homes, but have surely damaged their psyche,” she says. “Exercising twice a week for a couple of hours can greatly help women with physical as well as mental well-being,” she says.
Despite being a respected figure in the community due to her years of work—and one failed attempt at running for parliament—it was hard at first for Sofi to convince women to join the gym. “A lot of my initial clients came recommended from doctors in the neighborhood who knew me well,” she says, adding that her oldest son is also a doctor practicing in India. “Eventually, the word spread and now women come to me because they’ve heard about the benefits of going to a gym."
She recalls one case—three sisters who were recovering drug users. Women in Afghanistan who fall to addiction are treated very unkindly by the public, and are often exploited by the system meant to protect them. Sofi made it her goal to get on their cases—one was in her teens and the other two in their 20s.
“I would take a taxi to their house every day to pick them up, bring them to the gym, exercise and feed them, and drop them back. I did this for six months, and then the girls were able to travel on their own,” she says. Eight years later, not only have the girls fully recovered, but they've also made successful careers for themselves. “One of them has moved to Germany for work,” she says, smiling.
For a lot of women who visit gyms like Sofi’s, however, it becomes not just a place for fitness, but a space for camaraderie. “There are days when we simply get together at the gym for a potluck meal of healthier versions of Afghan delicacies,” says Mina, a 28-year-old housewife who visits at least four times a week. “It helps us feel [like a] part of a community.”
That's one reason why Sofi says she has no plans to retire. "Even after raising kids who’ve made successful careers," she says, "I have much left to do."
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