Editor’s note: This summer, Afghanistan’s national female boxing team is sending an athlete to the Olympics in London. Seventeen-year-old Sadaf Rahimi trained secretly with our writer and other women for years until finally they went public and created the Afghan Women’s Boxing Team.

It’s very difficult to change old ideas in Afghanistan about women, but after years of effort we have done it—by becoming athletes. I have been a member of the Afghan Women’s Boxing Team for three and a half years and it has been one of the biggest challenges of my life. We couldn’t tell anyone that we boxed, not even our families, because it would have been too dangerous.

This summer, one of my National team members will compete at the Olympics. She is Sadaf Rahimi. She is my friend and we are on the same team, and last Saturday she went to Germany to train.

Ten years ago, few women were interested in sports due to cultural differences, and if they were interested, they would learn self-defense. Today we have many more opportunities and women are practicing not only karate, but football, hockey, boxing, and other sports—with the exception of swimming. There are no swimming pools in Afghanistan, not even for men. Nevertheless, women athletes have changed the country’s view about sports.

But when I started boxing, it was not accepted. Even before the Taliban regime ruled, seeing women boxing would have been culturally unfathomable.

There was no place for girls to practice and there was no team. Our religion requires a woman athlete to wear clothing covering all of her body. Also the trainers can only be females. No men should see either the players or the trainers. This was part of what made the situation dangerous for us, because our trainers were two men—Nesar Ahmade Qarizada and Saber Rahimy—and we practiced in a boy’s gym since there weren’t any facilities for women.

Even though we had many problems, I really enjoyed being in the ring. When I started to fight, I felt the pain of my country’s women—like Sahar Gul—and I imagined her with me in ring and that I was fighting her attackers.  Wearing sweats and a T-shirt, I could feel free and like I could do anything, as long as I followed the rules and didn’t hit someone in the face. I am there to win and to show others: You cannot beat me anymore.

Although we did not talk about boxing publicly, it did not mean we were silent. After one year of practicing we started to tell our brothers and then our other relatives.  We knew that if we were strong, in time we could change our culture to accept women as boxers. There were some groups who sent us letters using the Taliban name and told us that if you continue we will kill all of you. But we didn’t care and we continued.

Other people were different; they encouraged us and were happy for us. Our coaches were very kind and open-minded people and when they saw we really wanted to learn boxing they helped us to practice. We had a team of five girls. Finally we sent a request to the Olympic Committee to form a National team. Step by step, our team grew to 35 female boxers and became a National team. We showed how we could make a big difference by speaking the unspoken truth.

Now that the secret is out, my people and family are proud of the boxing team. We show that Afghan women can be full, complete women. Afghan women athletes refuse to give up and they will continue to achieve their goals and help lead the way in creating new opportunities for women in our culture.

By Masooma

Sadaf Rahimi practices at a boxing club in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Sharp Shooter.