Incredible images of kick-ass female powerlifters transforming the sport in Afghanistan
Women in Afghanistan are training to become award winning powerlifters, despite living in a deeply conservative and patriarchal country where sport has long been the domain of men.
Inside the Afghanistan Powerlifting Federation’s cramped gym, the nation’s female powerlifting team squeezes into a small carpeted room in Kabul where they strip off their body-covering abayas and train to become champions.
Powerlifting is a branch of weightlifting using the squat, bench press and deadlift techniques but without any moves which lift the weight vertically overhead.
The Afghan Olympic Committee started the federation seven years ago but it has struggled to attract women, who are often discouraged from playing sport on the grounds of protecting their virtue.
But these ideals haven’t stopped Rasheda Parhiz, who is pictured lying on a bench wearing a tunic over sweatpants holding a 70-kilogram (150-pound) weight above her head.
The 40-year-old began powerlifting several years ago to help lose weight , she used to weigh 120kg and hid her frame under a burqa.
Now a fitter 82kg, Parhiz’s has won trophies and medals in local and regional competitions, which the mother-of-three keeps in a plastic shopping bag in her mud-brick home.
‘We are too lazy to dust them,’ said her 22-year-old daughter Lema, explaining why they are not displayed in the living room window next to tea sets and thermos.
‘Who’s interested?’ Parhiz asks modestly.
There are 20 women on the national team compared with more than 100 in the men’s squad, which also receives more official support, said Totakhail Shahpor, their coach.
The 52-year-old former soldier has been helping train the women for the past three years after their previous coach absconded during a competition in Canada.
‘I treat them like my daughters,’ Shahpor said. ‘If I imposed discipline like the army, the next day I would have no one left.’
To keep them motivated Shahpor pushes the women to take part in competitions even though each of them only receive 1,000 afghanis (less than US$15) a month, barely enough to cover transport costs.
‘Look at their shirts and trousers, they do not even have shoes,’ he said pointing to Sadia Ahmadi’s grey and yellow tracksuit which has a large patch on the thigh.
Ahmadi, 25, is the most successful member of the women’s team, winning four gold medals at competitions in Uzbekistan, India and Kazakhstan, Shahpor proudly said.
Despite the taboos around female sport, the women claim they enjoy the backing, even encouragement, of their fathers or husbands to do powerlifting.
‘My husband is happy … he is proud of me and pushing me,’said Parhiz.
But there are limits to his support, and he would probably balk if powerlifting ever became an Olympic sport.
It is currently only a sport in the Paralympics.
Lema said her father does not approve of his daughters attending public gyms, because he considers sporty girls ‘bad’.
‘He wouldn’t like to see me at the Olympics,’ Parhiz said.