Photo Credit: New York Times

Kandahar, Taliban, and a history of conflict

In the deeply conservative streets of Kandahar, rights activist Maryam Durani, 36, decided to take a new venture in her quest for female liberation: a fitness center.

Kandahar is largely under the influence of the Taliban, an Islamist militant group that has an active and open physical presence in 66% of Afghanistan (they have complete control of 14 districts, 4% of the country). The Afghan government only has complete control of a mere 30% of the districts, so north of 60% of the districts are virtually up for grabs.

There are constantly troops from NATO and the Afghan government fighting militants of the Taliban. Kandahar is often referred to as the “spiritual home” of the Taliban, who believe in a highly restrictive world for women in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban’s rule from 1996-2001, women were banned from educating themselves – it was illegal for them to even leave their house without the accompaniment of a male relative.

A trailblazer for women

Durani refused to be silenced. She made her revolutionary mark as the owner and operator of a progressive radio station in Kandahar, as well as being a member of the city’s provincial council. Her work at the station is dedicated to promoting and focusing on the advancement of women’s rights. In 2012, Durani was honored with winning the International Women of Courage Award, accepting the prize from uber-successful women, Hilary Clinton, and Michelle Obama.

Although Kandahar is liberated from Taliban rule, they still have lingering influences of their oppressive rule in the city. The Afghan government is not exactly the most progressive either, so women still justifiably have reason to feel threatened and scared in public.

The U.S. involvement is virtually over after two decades in Afghanistan, with plans set to bring home the last couple thousand troops. Still, it is possible that conflict erupts again, and the Taliban tries to reclaim power, this time without the United States in their way. This instability leaves many Afghan women fearful that the militant group will flex its power and influence through political channels.

A nation’s first

The gym is the first health fitness for women in the city of 600,000 people. It attracts around 50 customers per day and has seen itself grow after initial hostility and backlash. Durani is no stranger to adversaries, however – she has survived two suicide bombings, an assassination attempt, and an innumerable amount of death threats.

Located in a windowless basement, protected from hecklers and tormentors, the gym is successfully run by Khadija Kubra Women’s Association, created by Durani and her father in 2004. Regardless of who is in power, Kandahar has been a conservative fortress for decades. As a result, women being passionate about their health and fitness has been minuscule, with a myriad of Afghan men disapproving of women actually having control of their bodies.

Durani has said that the gym is equally about customers’ mental health as their physical, citing that most women that partake in her services are depressed. Unfortunately, many of the women working out have to hide it from their families – around 40%, Durani noted (as reported in aNew York Times interview)

Many men are claiming that Durani’s club is in opposition to Sharia law. The Taliban implemented strict laws to uphold Sharia law, so it is evident that their impact remains even when their power has been removed. However, some men in the town are accepting of the first female gym, as long as the women were hidden from the public eye.

There have yet to be any government-imposed rules or regulations on the fitness center, and those are potentially looming in Durani’s eyes. Membership currently costs 250 Afghanis, equivalent to roughly $3.50.

Durani’s clientele is pretty evenly split between housewives and women who work out of the house – all of which are happy for an escape that provides safety, comfort, and a healthy lifestyle. Kandahar’s first female gym is a step to Afghan women taking control of their bodies, and eventually, hopefully, taking control of their destiny.

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