The number of women athletes at the 12th South Asian Games is the most the country has fielded at any multi-disciplinary event. The games involves just eight countries so it may not sound like a big deal, but Robina Jalali knows that strength in numbers is what matters when it comes to women in Afghanistan, especially those who muster the courage to take up a sport.
“In all, including our basketball and handball teams, we have over 30 women at these games. It points to the progress women have made in sport. But more needs to be done,” Jalali says on the sidelines of the men’s wrestling event here. As vice-president of the male-dominated Afghanistan Olympic Committee, Jalali is the voice of female athletes in her country. “There is progress now because women in Afghanistan are playing sport but it is still a challenge,” Jalali says. Things are definitely better as compared to when Jalali, a two time-Olympian sprinter, was growing up. Jalali was one of the first to take to sports but her career took off only once the Taliban regime fell.
“It was difficult in the past. Playing sport was not advisable. But when I got the opportunity I went all out and trained. I wanted to be an inspiration for women in Afghanistan,” Jalali says.
Making a statement
What the former sprinter is talking about is her appearance at the Athens and Beijing Olympics. In 2004, she had become one of the two women to first represent Afghanistan in the Olympics. Jalali finished second last in the heats of the 100 metres but she had made a statement.
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Along with Jalali at the Athens Games was Friba Razayee, the judoka. Jalali says that Afghanistan women, if given the right platform, can excel in physical sports because they are hardy. “Women in Afghanistan are extremely tough because they have been through a lot. They are as brave as the men and have an exceptional fighting spirit. That is why you see a lot of them in contact sports.”
The Taliban regime fell when Jalali was in her teens but she remembers that even stepping out of the house was difficult. Once she hung up her spikes, Jalali turned her attention to politics. In 2010, she unsuccessfully contested the parliament elections. Now as vice-president of the national Olympic association, she is determined to ensure that more and more Afghanistan women progress to represent the country at the Olympics and other events around the world. “The experience our women athletes get by competing at the South Asian Games will help them go from strength to strength. Each time they step out they will gain confidence,” Jalali says.