It’s not been easy to be a women in Afghanistan in recent years, but things are beginning to improve. It’s the Afghan girls of the Shaolin Wushu club of Kabul who are blazing a trail for the sisterhood.
Until recent times, Afghanistan has endured many years of Taliban rule. It was a regime which severely restricted the rights of women and as well as the more well-known limitations, such as requirements to wear the hijab (black clothing which covers all parts of the body except the eyes) and not be seen with men who were not their husbands, participation in sports and other pastimes were also severely restricted.
Today, things are getting better. There is fragile peace with a democratic government in control of much of the country. Women’s freedoms are slowly improving in what is still a deeply conservative Muslim country. They still cannot participate in sports, but for one group of women, martial arts is offering them an outlet.
Sima Azimi is just 20-years old and is originally from Jaghuri, in central Afghanistan. She was fortunate enough to spend time studying in Iran which is where she first learned Wushu. Having moved back to Kabul she is now training a group of nine women. Their ultimate aim is to compete in international competitions and represent their country. But there is also a self-defence element as women in Afghanistan frequently face assaults and theft.
Sima herself has faced an attack in which a thief tried to steal her purse. But that particular thief had picked the wrong woman and Sima was able to use her martial arts skills to fend him off.
She now runs a Wushu class for a group of nine women in a small backstreet gymnasium in the part of Kabul which is home to the city’s Hazara ethnic community; a Shi’ite minority frequently targeted by ISIS and other extremist groups. It is the only such facility for women in the country and an Afghan film actor funds it.
On the wall overlooking them as they train is a poster of Afghan martial arts champion Hussain Sadiqi. He was of Hazara ethnicity and fled Afghanistan in 1999 to Australia where he now works as a film stuntman.
Simi charges between $2 and $5 a month for the classes, depending on what the students families can afford. Despite the fact that the Hazara community has a more liberal approach to women competing in sports. She admits it was still hard to persuade the families of her students that they should be allowed to compete.
“Some of my students’ families had problems accepting their girls studying Wushu,” she told AP. “But I went to their home and talked to their parents.”
They have encountered numerous problems in trying to run the classes. Sima and her students are frequently subjected to harassment and abuse in the city for participating in the classes. Getting hold of equipment is also difficult, with Sima having to resort to sourcing a Shaolin sword from Iran and getting uniforms custom made by a friendly local tailor.
But despite all of the obstacles they have faced, Sima’s passion for passing on the art of Wushu remains undiminished.
“I am working with Afghan girls to strengthen their abilities and I love to see Afghan girls improve the way other girls have improved in the world,” she said. “My ambition is to see my students take part in international matches and win medals for their country.”
Her students too are enthusiastic about martial arts and optimistic about how it can improve the situation so many Afghan women have to contend with. One, Shakila Muradi, boldly told the AP that “there are many people harassing us but we ignore them and follow our goals.”
Such defiance in the face of adversity is hugely impressive and speaks volumes about the power and confidence that martial arts can instill in people. For the Afghan girls of Kabul’s Shaolin Wushu club, it is not just a tool to enable them to fight back on the streets, but an opportunity to build a better and more inclusive country for their fellow women.
And perhaps in time, they will be able to make their families and friends proud on the international stage too. At a recent Olympic Committee competition in Kabul, Sima won the women’s competition. What better way to show how the Wushu girls of Kabul and using martial arts to kick back against the oppression that has held them back for so long.