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Afghan women defy tradition to run marathon

NGO "Free to Run" bringing sports into Afghan womens' lives.

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Afghan women defy tradition to run marathon

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Women in Afghanistan, a country scarred by years of war and with a history of gender discrimination, have it hard. Despite all this, some relish the most punishing of all sports, marathon running, and are insisting on their right to compete alongside the men.

Our partners at NBC News asked Kelly Cobiella to find out what sort of hurdles are placed in their way.

“Nearly 200 trailblazing female runners lined up at the foot of the destroyed Bamiyan buddahs to race. They risk insults, stoning and some have had death threats. But they run anyway, and they run with the men.
How does running make you feel?”

“Free”, says 21-year-old Raihanna, who hides her face, saying the Taliban would kill her for daring to compete. When she was growing up, she adds, she was told women had their place.

“They should wash the dishes, they should grow the children. I didn’t like it because when I saw the boys they were very free,” she says.

Raihanna cut her hair, left her small village and went in search of a new home where she could feel free. She met up with a group called “Free to Run”.


The non-profit organisation organises pickups with unmarked vans for keen runners, who are taken in secret to safe places where they can train without fear.

“What we’re doing is about so much more than sports,” explains runner and human rights lawyer Stephanie Case who started “Free to Run” three years ago. The runners set goals and learn new skills like skating, cycling, or simple repair skills. Case says it is about empowerment, and change.

“When you get them outside interacting with communities, hiking though villages, you have people see them and it allows women to reclaim public space that they are constantly shoved out of,” says Case.


It is a tough road these women are taking, battling dust, cramps, and a society that says they can’t do what they love, and yet they continue, not for medals or personal bests, but to simply prove that they can.

“I accept that I am a girl but I can go everywhere and I can be free,” laughs Riahanna.

“These women are running for freedom and a better future”, reports NBC News’s Kelly Cobiella.