|Afghan women start to pump iron and shape up in the battle for their rights|
|The Shafaq is one of three fitness clubs which have opened for women in Heart
They don't wear lycra and some keep their headscarves on while they work out, but the Shafaq Women's Bodybuilding Club represents a small revolution for women in the conservative western Afghan city of Herat."I always wished for freedom. When I come to this club by my own choice I feel I am free and independent," says 25-year-old Masooda, who works out there.
When Masooda goes to lift weights and run at the club, far more is at stake than a smaller waistline and bigger biceps in a country where average female life expectancy is 44 and a woman dies in childbirth every half hour, she explains.
"It is a struggle to change the thoughts of women, to bring them out of houses and make them meet other female friends, know about their rights and fight for them," she adds.
The Shafaq club is one of three fitness clubs which have opened for women in Herat in recent months, the first of their kind in the country where four years ago under the Taliban regime women were not allowed to work, study or leave the house without an all-covering burqa.
In western Herat, liberation for women has come slowly, as former city Governor and mujahideen fighter Ismael Khan ruled the city with an iron fist until he was ousted last September, and held conservative views on women.
Even after the fall of the hard-line Islamic Taliban in 2001, Nazifa Sidiq, 27, had to exercise in secret. Her group of seven women who used to meet to train together were busted by the authorities and ordered to stop in 2002.
"At the beginning I used to have problems with my husband when I exercised. I kept explaining to him that I exercised with other women, not men and it was not un-Islamic, and eventually I got through to him," Sidiq says.
Until recently she still wore an all-covering blue burqa on her way to work at the fitness club but now she walks there with only a black headscarf to cover her hair and her face on view.
She says that being able to exercise has made her more willing to push the boundaries of tradition.
"Now I have gone back to school after a 13-year gap because of my marriage. I am more aware of my rights," she adds.
Since President Hamid Karzai appointed a new governor of western Afghanistan's largest city in September, Herat has experienced an outburst of new activities for women - jobs, driving schools, and now gyms.
"It is the first time ever we have had female bodybuilding clubs in Afghanistan," says Saeed Mahmoud Zia Dashti, the deputy director of Afghan Olympic Committee which sent two female athletes to Athens last year.
In Afghanistan, sport has long been taboo for women who are still widely expected to be demure and not venture widely outside the home.
"I think this is a big step toward the advancement of women, I cannot express how happy I am. Women should come out of their homes and participate in social activities," said manager of the Shafaq Club, Zahra Noori, 36.
The Herat gym, which has 32 members, is part of a nascent fitness trend as women start going to gyms and practicing martial arts, which were popular among a handful of Afghan girls when the Soviets controlled Afghanistan.
"In the past six months we have registered four women clubs - three bodybuilding and one karate club," says Zia al-Haq, deputy director of Herat's Olympic sports department. The Women Activities Social Service Association has helped the establishment of the women's fitness clubs in cooperation with humanitarian organisation Christian Aid.
Engineer Shah Agha, the head of the association's sub-office in Herat, says "our office works to enhance women's ability at all levels including education and sports which are important."
Agha said that two years ago it was not even possible for his office to sponsor a women's radio station in Herat without receiving threats from local intelligence officials, but now they can safely fund sports clubs.
"I could not believe that one day I would be able to go to a club and exercise but now I come with my mother," said Freshta, 15.
In this western city, which lies near the Iranian border and for long before the Taliban had a more liberal tradition than southern and eastern Afghanistan, some residents are enthusiastic.
"If I had a daughter and trusted the club, I would have sent her to exercise. It is good for health and women should exercise," says Ghulam Sakhi, 55, who runs a grocery shop in the city. But others are less enthusiastic and worry about what the neighbors will say.
"In our conservative, traditional society when women practice bodybuilding they start to create problems for their families because people start to finger point at the family and the girl and talk about them," says Waheed Azizi, 22, a student of the science and technology faculty of Herat University.
Beirut,06 27 2005
The Daily Star