Afghani female sprinter resists country's old ideals, vows to show women new future

LONDON – She could see the men gathering along the track where she trained back home in Kabul, a daunting gauntlet of soccer and volleyball players surrounding the lone woman in the stadium. And Tahmina Kohistani tensed. Something felt wrong. Then they began to shout.

"You can't win a medal from the Olympics, it's not your job!"

"Just be in your house!"

"It's not good for us for an Afghan girl to run!"

"Be behind your man!"

For a moment, tears burned in her eyes. It was not long before she would go to London, to become the only female athlete from a country that does not believe women should play sports. And after 10 minutes of the taunts, she went home that day saying she would not come back. She said she was through. She said she could never face the men again.

But the next morning she did return, because if she didn't, who would? Who would tell the women in her country that they could run too? Who would push for their freedom?

A few days later the men were back at the stadium again. They gathered along the track as Kohistani ran. She could almost feel the glare of their eyes. She knew they were watching. This time they said nothing.

They would not bother her again.

"I'm going to run for all the women of Afghanistan," Kohistani says.

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On Friday night she walked into the Olympic stadium and again tears filled her eyes. Here were all the best athletes in the world, walking together with so much cheering and noise spilling down upon them, and yet she was the only woman from her country. Because of this she wept. She cried for the women who wanted to be athletes, too, but couldn't because their families would not allow it. She cried for the women who ached to be like her. And she cried for the women whose bodies were going to waste because of a culture that still forbids females from exercising.

"In my country the woman has a lot of problems, and every second 10, maybe more than 10 women, are killed in every province of Afghanistan because they have a lot of illness," she says. "I think it's the best way to keep them healthy – by sporting, not medicine. Medicine might make them healthy for a few months, but sports makes them healthy forever."

She sits inside a café in the Athletes Village one day right after the start of the Olympics. Outside, a rain pelts down from a passing summer thunderstorm. She wears a warm-up suit and a head scarf, a small umbrella is by her side. She speaks freely in halting English as if she has been waiting all her life for these Olympics, to say these words. She knows she stands little chance in the 100-meter race she will run Friday against the fastest women in the world. But the result is less important to her, she says. What matters most is the message that will come with the simple act of settling into the starting blocks.

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"It's difficult to be a woman in Afghanistan because we have a lot of war and a lot of bad regime," she says. "It's time to change the mind of people about the woman because in the Taliban regime the woman doesn't have equal rights, they have a different idea about the woman. They think you must keep your woman in your house: Don't let them go to school, don't let them go to sporting, don't let them go to anywhere.

In many ways she is the ideal of a new Afghanistan, one molded in the months after the initial U.S. invasion during which years of the Taliban's oppression of women was washed away. As a teenager in school, she started playing basketball, but was always the last player picked, the worst one on the floor. So she looked for a new sport, one that would be more individual, one in which she wouldn't need to rely upon others to be great.

She watched another Afghan woman, Robina Muqimyar, run the 100 meters in Athens back in 2004 and was inspired by what Muqimyar was doing – so defiant and free. She wanted to run too. Soon she, too, had a goal. She was going to be in the Olympics.

Her father Gavid Kohistani, an Afghan politician, wasn't sure he wanted his daughter to run, she says. But then he saw how much she loved it and he told her she must continue, that what she was doing was important enough that that she should not give up a dream.

"She has a very strong determination," says Gavid Kohistani's brother Hasibullah, who spoke for the father who does not speak English. "She's a talented girl. She wants to change society. She would like to be free in Afghanistan and have this be a liberal society."

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But Hasibullah Kohistani also concedes: "This is very challenging. It's very difficult for her in Afghanistan. It's not like other countries. In Afghanistan we still have problems, there are people who do not allow the girls to be free. All the time they do not want to see the girls play a sport."

Tahmina's father "is worried about her safety and security," Hasibullah Kohistani says. "He is worried about his daughter and when she goes to exercises all the time. There are people here who do not allow the women to do exercises all the time."

Hasibullah Kohistani says he, too, frets. He is fond of his niece. He loves her stubborn determination and is proud that she is fighting for something big. But he worries about the things that people might say or do. He doesn't want her to be injured. Nor does he want her will to be broken.

After Tahmina Kohistani returned home from the stadium that day the male athletes taunted her, he went to her and said: "Please close your ears. That is your only option."

She said she would do this. And she did. But there are still so many signs of anger, so many people who say that what she is doing is wrong. Like the time she tried to take a taxi and told her driver she was headed to the stadium to train for the Olympics in London. The man stopped the car.

"Get out of my cab!" the driver shouted, throwing her out into the street. "Do not show me your face. I am not going to drive you there."

But when asked about her safety, Tahmina Kohistani shrugs.

"It's very difficult for me," she says. "We need someone to accept this challenge. I'm the person who is going to do this. And I decided I was going to do this for my country and for the people and for the women of Afghanistan.

"I am just going to do this."

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She has a dream. She is going to bring women out of the house after this Olympics. She is going to get them running and exercising and living lives they were told they could not have. She is convinced there will be a movement when she returns. She is going to invite all the women to come to the stadium to run with her. She imagines many will come out. And then she believes some of those will even go to the Olympics.

"I know that right now all the women of Afghanistan are proud of me because I'm the only girl who is coming to represent Afghanistan," she says. "It's very difficult, what I am going to do."

Such a crusade never happened after Muqimayr returned after Athens and then later Beijing in 2008. But Tahmina Kohistani shakes her head. No. This time it will be different she says.

"Because the reason is that I have, she doesn't have," Tahmina Kohistani says. "I'm going to do something to change my society but she does not have this idea. She just want to be famous girl. I can say a lot of things about her character, but I know that our feeling is different. My feeling is different because I'm going to do something for my country. I like to change the society, to change the mind of people about [women] and they should accept this. We are not wrong. We are right."

She is going to build a program in her country. She is going to call it Women in Sports in Afghanistan, and it will be dedicated to breaking apart the old way of thinking. She worked on the idea last year when she spent two months studying in the U.S. at Kansas University, and she is sure it is going to work.

"I feel there are a lot of Afghan women who are watching me now and they hope that they should be in place of Tahmina and be representing their country," she says.

And as she sat there in the café at the Olympic village she smiled.

She would love nothing more than if they did.

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