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Afghan women hit the treadmill at first female gym

By: Reuters Editorial | 24 September 2020

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In Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar, rights activist Maryam Durani has found a fresh outlet for her decades of advocacy – a new fitness centre for women. Libby Hogan reports.

Afghan women are flexing their muscles at the first female-only gym in their country’s southern province of Kandahar.

It’s the latest effort by Maryam Durani, a fierce campaigner of women‘s rights, recognized by Michelle Obama in 2012 with the International Women of Courage Award.

Kandahar is a city where the Islamist Taliban have major sway and take a conservative attitude towards women.

Durani says women have welcomed the gym‘s opening, but men are not so impressed:

“The reaction of the ladies was very positive because they needed it, but unfortunately, what bothered me was the reaction of the men, especially the men who were educated and thought they were intellectuals. These men were the ones who reacted negatively to our club and even insulted me because they thought our club was in opposition to the Sharia.”

The gym draws about 50 women a day.

Customer Fatima Hashimi says stepping into the centre to hit the treadmill is an exercise in risk.

“Undoubtedly, (coming here) is not without fear and everyone knows that in such a situation, women are more afraid. But if we look at it from another angle, exercise is beneficial to our health and thus brings happiness.”

Durani is always on the lookout for fresh ideas to advocate for women‘s rights

and when she isn’t working out, she runs a radio station for women and has also served on the provincial council.

With the troop withdrawl signed between the U.S and the Taliban, after fighting a 19-year bloody war, women are still worried that the Taliban may exert its influence through formal political channels.

Under their previous time in power, women and girls were banned from education and could not leave the house without a male relative.

“Our concern is that if the Taliban return and reunite with the government, what will be the restrictions they will impose? Because given what I have been following on the news, I think the Taliban’s mindsets and ideas have not changed much.”

For now, Durani is pushing forward with the club, helping Afghan women from housewives to those working jobs outside the home to feel safe and strong in their bodies.

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