Afghan Girls and Women Run in Mixed-Gender Bamiyan Mara…

Kelly Cobiella and Carlo Angerer and Kiko Itasaka

KABUL, Afghanistan — Under a brilliant blue sky at the foot of where the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan statues once stood, nearly 200 girls in headscarves of every color jockey for position at the starting line.

The announcer counts down, “five, four …” but the girls can’t contain their excitement and they’re off early, running in the third annual Bamiyan Marathon and a 6-mile race alongside the men and boys — the only mixed-gender sports event in Afghanistan.

Sixteen years after the fall of the ultra-conservative Taliban, it’s still culturally unacceptable for women in most of Afghanistan to ride a bike, go for a run and, in some cases, pursue an education.

“When I saw boys, they were free, they can run, they can go everywhere and I [wanted] that too,” said runner Raihanna. The 21-year-old grew up in a village in the mountains of Afghanistan’s central Daikundi province, the daughter of a sheep herder.

From a young age, she pushed her parents for the same rights as her brothers.

“They said this is our culture, a girl should be in the house and they should wash the dishes, they should [raise] children,” she said. “My father was angry with me and said, ‘You should have a long skirt’ and, ‘You shouldn’t wear short clothes, you should be a wife.’ But I didn’t accept that because I want to be free.”

Raihanna convinced her parents to allow her to move to Kabul and study at the university, where she cut her hair short, wore what she liked, and discovered another passion.

‘Free to run’

It is dawn in Kabul and an unmarked bus has pulled up to Raihanna’s home. She piles in with the other girls, all dressed for a morning jog. They’re ferried to a safe place where they jump out and hit the road running.

These regular runs wouldn’t be possible without a non-profit called Free to Run, started by corporate attorney turned human rights lawyer, Stephanie Case. “When I took a job in Kabul I was told I’d have to give up running,” Case says.

Image: Girls walk along a dirt road after running the Bamiyan Marathon

Girls walk along a dirt road after running the 10K race.