Afghanistan held its first official marathon on Friday, Oct. 16. Of the roughly 35 runners who joined the race across Bamiyan's highlands, there was just one Afghan woman, The Guardian reported. Zainab, a 25-year-old woman known only by her first name for security reasons, began running last year with the encouragement of her colleagues at Skateistan, the international skateboarding charity where she works.
So what does it take to be a female marathoner in a society where simply running outdoors is a dangerous endeavor for women?
Marathons involve a lot of advance distance training, as anyone who has run a marathon or witnessed a loved-one's training routine knows too well. In the early days of her training, Zainab ran with a friend in the mountains outside her hometown. But after a female Qur'an teacher was murdered by a mob in March, it shocked women across the country. Zainab became scared to head back into the hills. Because running outside in public felt unsafe for Zainab, she was forced to do those training runs in tiny laps around her family's small backyard.
Fortunately, Zainab has great support from her family, and her mother and sisters sometimes joined her on those jogs around the backyard.
Zainab and three other women attempted to compete in an unofficial marathon from the Paghman Valley to Kabul in August. But as they entered the capital city, they were met with abuse and forced to pull out of the race early, Zainab told The Guardian.
"The children were stoning us, the people said bad words like 'Prostitutes, why don’t you stay at home? You are destroying Islam.'"
Other attempts to get involved in local sports proved similarly frustrating. At one point, Zainab had enrolled in a girls' taekwondo club, but police shut it down.
Since Bamiyan is known as one of the safest and most liberal regions in Afghanistan, Zainab found a much warmer welcome there, facing only curious looks from the herders and farmers she ran past. A local high school invited her to deliver a motivational speech before the race, and young children tried to follow her path on the course.
"Bamiyan is a good place for this. In other places, they would be killed," the region's governor, Zahir Tahir, said.
Zainab had some female company in Afghanistan's first official marathon, running alongside a Canadian woman and a Belgian woman from the organization Free to Run, which supports women's and girls' access to sports.
A few male competitors did accuse Zainab of cheating. According to The Guardian, several of her male competitors rode on the back of motorbikes for part of the course.
Zainab told The Guardian that she began running with one goal in mind: "To open the way for other girls in Afghanistan – in other parts of society as well, but especially sports."