If it is unusual to see a woman representing Afghanistan at the Olympic Games, her choice of sport is even more surprising. Sadaf Rahimi — the only female member of the national team and only the third female Olympic athlete to represent the country — is a boxer.
Now 18, her early childhood years were at a time when women were banned from playing sport under the Taliban. She now trains at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul, where the old regime would stage public executions.
Rahimi started boxing four years ago after seeing Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter and a former professional boxer, fighting.
“It made me realize a woman can do this,” Rahimi said through an interpreter by telephone from Cardiff University, where she has been training for a few weeks.
In Afghanistan, she said, not everybody approves of women’s boxing.
“Many people think girls should stay at home. My aunt was not happy at all that her niece should be doing this sport,” she said.
Her older sister, Shabnam, is also a boxer — both girls featured in the documentary The Boxing Girls of Kabul — and her parents, she said, “are really supportive.”
However, her father has been threatened because he allows his daughter to box.
“Some people are not happy that I do this type of sport. They look at me badly,” she said.
Last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai backed a “code of conduct” for women, issued by clerics, which includes encouraging segregation and allowing men to beat their wives. There are fears that the gains women have made since 2001 will be put back in negotiations for peace.
Rahimi has seen things improve for women in the past few years, but she said: “Peace will create the platform to get equal rights. The only thing that would give me hope is peace.”
Wearing boxing clothes that cover her arms and legs, Rahimi trains just three days a week for an hour at the stadium, where security is provided, but she also continues her training at home. The women’s boxing team was established by the Cooperation for Peace and Unity in 2007, set up to encourage girls and women to get involved in sport under its Fight for Peace project. The project has been funded by the charity and by Oxfam.
“We don’t have many facilities,” Rahimi said. “Boxing in our country is not big enough to be a future career.”
She wants to be a journalist and hopes to go to university after the Olympics. In May, she will fight in a competition in China, then at the London Olympic Games, where she is in line for a wild-card entry.
“I am very excited,” she said. “I am proud to be in the Olympics and to represent Afghanistan, and especially women.”