Women boxing clever in Afghanistan

The issue of female athletes from conservative Muslim countries has been headline news in recent weeks, but these women have already caused quite a stir by starring in a recent award-winning documentary.

Sadaf Rahimi, right, trains inside a boxing club in Kabul.
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The issue of female athletes from conservative Muslim countries is one that has hit the headlines in recent weeks. A group of female boxers from the region have already created quite a stir by becoming the stars of a recent award-winning documentary.

The Boxing Girls of Kabul, which picked up the Inspirit Foundation Pluralism prize at the Hot Docs festival in Canada in April, follows the 18-year-old aspiring boxer Sadaf Rahimi, along with her older sister Shabnam and fellow female pugilist Shahla as they train and compete in Afghanistan, where the Taliban once forbade women from entering sports. "They're extraordinary girls," says the Canadian director Ariel Nasr, who has been working in Kabul off and on for the past three years. "But they're really just boxing because they want to be boxers, they're not trying to be political."Having heard about the girls back in 2007, Nasr says he was immediately interested in making a documentary.

After contacting the organiser of their team, he eventually managed, after numerous discussions with the girls and their families, to convince them to be part of the film. “What you see in the film is about a year’s worth of competitions, starting towards the end of 2010 when they went to Vietnam. We continued to follow them for the remainder of 2011.”As one might imagine, the idea of women boxers in a country still affected by the highly conservative values instilled by its ousted rulers isn’t something that sits well with everybody there.

Highlighting Afghanistan’s horrifying modern history, Sadaf trains in the notorious Ghazi Stadium, where the Taliban used to hold public executions of women just a decade ago.

Nasr admits that harassment is something the girls have become used to. “It comes from their neighbours, by people at school or even strangers in the street.” While he says it’s generally only harassment and not anything more serious, and that the girls can still function and operate in Kabul, the dangers forced him to take several things into consideration when making the film. “You’ve got to play it safe and that’s why I didn’t show any of the girls’ homes from the street, or talk about where their parents worked, or any additional detail that wasn’t already available that could lead to someone having access to them.”

When Nasr started filming, aside from a few news stories, there hadn’t been a great deal of coverage about Sadaf or her sister. “But by the time I’d finished, there was a huge amount of publicity surrounding them; hundreds, if not thousands of articles in languages from Chinese to Eastern European to French, Spanish, Catalonian.”

The massive amount of interest that the girls were generating from curious international news agencies and publications affected filming significantly. While they were initially excited about being in a film, the growing media frenzy caused them and their families to become increasingly uncomfortable.

“Their families found out how many photographers were coming to the gym and realised that they didn’t know where the images were going. It caused them to shut down access completely.” Nasr had to start from scratch again, convincing them of his intentions and of his agreements with the Olympic committee and the box federation. “I made them know that I wasn’t just someone off the street.”

Having done the festival circuit, The Boxing Girls Of Kabul has now been picked up by several TV stations across the world. But one place it won't be shown is in Afghanistan itself, again for safety issues. "I have an agreement with the girls not to show it there."

Both Sadaf and Shabnam won medals in Asian tournaments after the documentary was completed, while Shahla has given up boxing following the birth of her first child. These dedicated and extraordinary boxing girls from Kabul are likely to continues generating some significant, and well deserved, interest.