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In Former Taliban Stronghold, Defiant Women Hit the Gym

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Homa Yusafzai felt horrible. Her weight was up, she had diabetes and hypertension, and at simply 27 she felt torpid and depressed.

Then she heard that Kandahar’s first well being membership for girls had simply opened — the miracle she had been ready for, she thought. Her husband at first refused to let her be a part of. Kandahar is a deeply conservative metropolis, a former headquarters of the Taliban the place males nonetheless dictate the most prosaic particulars of ladies’s lives.

But finally, he relented, and Ms. Yusafzai now works out six days every week, straining by way of hand-weight repetitions and pounding a treadmill. In six months, she stated, she had shed virtually 50 kilos, lowered her blood stress and introduced her diabetes underneath management.

“I feel so healthy and I have more energy — I’m so happy,” she stated as she rested between exercises.

The well being membership was opened late final 12 months by Maryam Durani, 36, an indomitable girls’s rights advocate who has survived two suicide bombings, an assassination try and numerous loss of life threats — to not point out harsh public condemnation for opening the membership.

The health club has survived, tucked away in a windowless basement inside a locked compound, shielded from prying eyes. It is the newest addition to the Khadija Kubra Women’s Association, run by Ms. Durani along with her father’s assist since 2004. It features a radio station, English and literacy lessons for girls, an Islamic faculty and a seamstress heart that sells clothes made by girls.

It is uncommon for Afghan girls to train, although a number of girls’s well being golf equipment and even two girls’s swimming swimming pools have opened in Kabul, the capital. But in conservative strongholds like Kandahar, many males disapprove of ladies making an attempt to take management of their very own our bodies.

“Kandahar is a very difficult environment for women,” Ms. Durani stated. “We have to be careful and discreet.”

She added: “The club is as much for women’s mental health as their physical health. Almost every woman who comes here is depressed.”

Roughly 40 p.c of membership members train secretly, hiding exercises from their households, Ms. Durani stated. Membership had dropped from 60 in the spring to 30 now, due to a three-month coronavirus closure and since some girls feared their households would uncover their secret exercises.

“My father and brothers said they would kill me if I went to a health club,” stated one health club member, who requested to be recognized solely by her nickname, Tamana.

Tamana, 33, was wearing white robes historically worn for finding out the Quran at a madrasa — the excuse she provides her household for leaving house to train at the membership two hours a day, six days every week. She modifications into exercise garments at the health club, hitting the treadmill, stationary bike and hand weights.

“I’m not doing anything wrong or shameful,” Tamana stated. “In fact, it’s something that’s made me a happier and healthier person.”

But the health club is continually in jeopardy. Soon after it opened, it was deluged with profane social media posts from outraged residents. They known as it a home of prostitution the place whores exercised to make themselves extra interesting to males. Mocked and vilified, Ms. Durani was instructed to shut the membership and ship the girls house to their husbands.

“I was shocked that they called my daughter a prostitute — that they said no man with dignity would allow such a thing,” stated Ms. Durani’s father, Haji Mohammad Essa, 82, a wiry, white-bearded former instructor who owns the compound that features the health club.

Club members say they’ve been harassed and propositioned by males outdoors the membership. A couple of have been struck by stones thrown by males on motorbikes who threatened to kill them in the event that they continued to go to the membership, Ms. Durani stated.

Some members all the time cowl their hair with head scarves whereas exercising — out of modesty or custom, Ms. Durani stated. (A male reporter was permitted to interview girls inside the health club, however not throughout exercises and solely whereas they had been totally lined. A feminine photographer for The New York Times was allowed to {photograph} health club shoppers with their consent, however provided that they had been sporting totally concealing clothes as a substitute of their regular exercise garments.)

“If people see us exercising without being covered, it will create a bad image for us,” Ms. Yusafzai stated.

The membership employs a coach who leads workout routines and teaches diet and weight-reduction plan. Ms. Yusafzai stated she deserted meat, rice and bread in favor of greens and fruit. She not ate sugar or chocolate, and had meat and rice simply as soon as every week, she stated.

Mumtaz Faizi, 32, stated her husband had inspired her to affix the health club. After two months on the treadmill and stationary bike, plus situps and hand weight exercises, she had misplaced 11 kilos and was decided to lose 30 extra, she stated.

Ms. Faizi stated she felt relaxed and free inside the sanctuary of the health club. Even so, she stated she didn’t really feel fully freed from stress and fear.

“In this society, men create all the problems,” she stated. “It’s our culture, not just the Taliban. They’ve been gone a long time, but men still control everything.”

Several neighborhood males stated they accredited of the membership so long as the girls had been shielded from public view. They stated Kandahar had no secure areas for girls to train.

“Women need more exercise than men because they stay home and get fat, which causes diseases,” stated Abdul Wali Wafa, 30.

Sardar Mohammad, 40, stated most older males vehemently disapprove of the membership, however youthful males have few objections. “If the environment is safe and protects women, it’s OK,” he stated.

Mr. Essa, who runs the radio station, stated he views the health club as one small step in returning Afghanistan to what he considers its glory years — the Nineteen Sixties and early Nineteen Seventies, when he remembers a progressive authorities and freedoms for girls.

“We’re an extremist country now,” he stated. “I would sacrifice my life if Afghanistan could go back to that time.”

For now, he stated, it provides him nice pleasure to see girls exercising and enhancing their well being, and for simply 250 Afghanis ($3.50) a month. He additionally enjoys teasing his daughter, who stated she had misplaced weight after common health club exercises.

“You used to tell me I was too fat,” Ms. Durani instructed him. “Now you tell me I should eat more or I’ll get sick.”

For Ms. Yusafzai, the membership supplies a welcome refuge. “I relax when I’m here and forget about everything outside, at least for a while,” she stated.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.

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