Students at a local girls’ high school crowd around Stephanie Case, founder of Free to Run.
Students at a local girls’ high school crowd around Stephanie Case, founder of Free to Run. (Photo: Madeline Kane)

Afghanistan’s Only Female Marathon Runner Is Racing to Keep Women’s Sport Alive

Zainab, the first woman to complete a marathon in the country, is leading the charge to get more women involved in athletics

Students at a local girls’ high school crowd around Stephanie Case, founder of Free to Run.
Madeline Kane

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Zainab’s pink hijab fluttered behind her as she sprinted beneath a shower of silver poplar leaves. Her expression was playful and unconcerned, her limbs loose as she beat up a secluded trail in the foothills of Bamyan province, Afghanistan. She ran unencumbered, but for the brief instants when she set her jaw and, fists tightened, seemed to remember all she had endured to run freely in her own country.

In October 2015, Zainab, a petite woman of 25, became Afghanistan's first woman to complete a marathon. As the only Afghan female to finish the Marathon of Afghanistan in Bamyan province, Zainab braved threats of violence and had defied the prevailing local wisdom that women were incapable of tough athletic feats. At her award ceremony, the Governor of Bamyan noted that Zainab would have been killed for running a marathon in other parts of the country.

Now Zainab was back in Bamyan for a women’s sport summit, where a group of female athletes would train together and rally local schoolgirls to join a 5k footrace across the high desert trails of Band-e-Amir National Park.

Commanding a crowd would be easy. After finishing the marathon in 2015, Zainab had received national media attention and the Franco-German Afghan Woman of the Year prize, a prestigious award that came with a large cash sum toward a cause of the honoree's choosing. Privately, though, she didn’t expect to perform well in the race. It was the first time she had run in the open since the her historic finish nine months before. Out of fear, Afghanistan’s marathon woman had confined herself to jogging in circles around the courtyard of her family's home.

Zainab eyed the 20 athletes who assembled in Bamyan for the week-long summit, convened by the women’s sport and development organization Free to Run. The roster included some major trailblazers. There were female climbers from Ascend, who were first to scale a 17,000-foot peak in northeastern Afghanistan. Members of the country's first women’s ski club, its national volleyball team, and its first women's cycling team had also joined. Champion American ultrarunner Amy Sproston had flown in to mentor them just days after taking second for women at the Western States 100. (For security reasons, all the local athletes' names or last names have been withheld along with their home provinces.)

Free to Run had convened them all for a broader purpose: to breathe life into Afghan women’s athletics at a time when violence, corruption, and discrimination threatened its very existence.

For Afghan women, running outside is a subversive act in a nation still clawing out from the shadow of Taliban rule. During that brutal era, the Taliban government jailed women for laughing too loudly, murdered them for going to school, beat them for leaving the house alone. It was illegal for women to play sports. It was illegal for women to make a sound with their footsteps. Burqas were mandatory. Today, moving freely outdoors is still less a right than a negotiation of minefields—both literal and figurative.

Zainab knows this intimately. Within her relatively progressive community, men scorned athleticism among women as either an absurdity or an affront. Fathers were apt to forbid their daughters to play. By age 16, every girl in Zainab's basketball team had dropped out to marry. A year later, her women’s Tae Kwon Do studio was shut down by police.

At the time, Zainab’s fury turned to fatigue. She quit sports for good and refocused on studying and working to support her family. “I was like an automatic person,” she said. “Home, school, work, waiting for my salary. I didn’t know what life was.” She waited for a housewife's destiny like her mother’s to arrive, for her own footprints to trace worn circles around the kitchen in her husband's home. 

All of that changed in early 2015 when Zainab was introduced to Stephanie Case, founder of Free to Run. Free to Run had been partnering with local schools to build a network of of women’s sport clubs one at a time. But to cultivate local leaders for the long haul, it needed to motivate Afghan girls to push themselves to achieve what society said they couldn't. It needed an audacious few to trample barriers. That’s how Zainab, who had never run before, was recruited for a brutal 250-kilometer self-supported ultramarathon across the Gobi Desert in China. She had four months to train. 

Case had a plan. She paired Zainab with Nelofar, another runner with zero experience, and the two started virtual coaching sessions with Case and her network of ultrarunners, who covered everything from nutrition to gait analysis, which was cleverly filmed by a female friend standing on a skateboard with a cellphone. A male driver transported Zainab and Nelofar to daily jogs and weekly trail runs under protective police watch.

Then in March 2015, a horrific murder rocked Afghanistan. Farkhunda Malikzada, an educated Afghan woman and Koranic scholar, was brutally killed before a crowd of hundreds in downtown Kabul. She had argued with a man hawking charms outside a shrine about the piety of his profiteering and, enraged, he turned a mob against her. Video of the incident showed men and boys tearing Farkhunda’s body apart with their hands, crushing her with a car and burning her corpse. Policemen stood watching.

Zainab’s Afghanistan, already precarious, looked suddenly monstrous. “I feel unsafe, I feel I am Farkhunda” she wrote at the time on her training blog (which has since been taken down). “I am scared of the men in our country.” The harassment she experienced while trotting the streets, the occasional grab or jab, the frequent jeer, now terrified her.

Zainab and Nelofar were forced to train indoors, and even that wasn’t easy. No gym would allow them, and they were powerless to protest. In Afghanistan, even secular places segregate their wealthy clientele by gender. Fine restaurants relegate women to fluorescent-lit back rooms while men dine on embroidered divans. With no women's gym available, the pair resorted to running around their cramped courtyards each morning, logging as many miles as they could.

Zainab treks the Koh-e Baba mountains during the sports summit.
Zainab treks the Koh-e Baba mountains during the sports summit. (Madeline Kane)

In June 2015, the two women unfurled an Afghan flag at the finish line of the arduous 250k Gobi March. Despite having never run more than a few hours in the open, they had covered roughly one marathon per day over seven days. The race was excruciating, notwithstanding the fleeting novelty of running safely outdoors. With Case and Free to Run board member Virginie Goethals by their side, Zainab and Nelofar had been chased through the desert by frigid snowstorms and blistering sandstorms under the weight of 20-pound packs. Case and Goethals recalled moments watching the two Afghans knelt in prayer together in the rain, one Sunni and the other Shia, and wondering if they had made a grave mistake in dragging two inexperienced runners through the Chinese wilderness. 

Ultimately, Zainab and Nelofar willed themselves to complete the odyssey and prove their mettle for all Afghan women. Having vanquished the Gobi desert, it seemed, they could tackle any challenge at home. But things rarely went as planned in Afghanistan.

After the Gobi, Zainab and Nelofar decided they would take on Kabul, that beast that swallowed Farkhunda. On a hot afternoon in August 2015, with two friends in tow, they tentatively approached the starting point of an unofficial marathon into the capital. A small group of male runners had planned the event, promising escort vehicles would provide protection and water for the women. But shortly after the race began, the men tired of waiting for the women. The men and their support trucks vanished down the road. 

Unable to keep pace with the pack, Zainab and her friends became prey. Villagers pelted them with stones and curses as they descended into Kabul’s smog. The women ran for seven terrifying hours, finding relief from the abuse only when one of the male runners turned back to defend them against the onlookers for the remainder of their run. As they finished in the dark, Zainab's friends trembled with fear. Zainab shook with rage, a rage that she would convert into fuel for her historic marathon run not two months later.

Back at the Free to Run Summit last month, the athletes assembled at the base of the Koh-e Babas, the “grandfather mountains,” whose cracked and tawny backs bend over the city of Bamyan. In the run-up to race day, the summit attendees had planned a strenuous three-day trek along an ancient mountain path. 

As far as anyone knew, no group of women hikers had ever spent multiple days and nights in these mountains. It was so unusual, in fact, that a national television station had sent a crew along to film them. Local communities would undoubtedly take notice, too, and so careful consultation with the area’s mullahs and elders was required. The village leaders were gracious and receptive, and a few even offered the hikers places to sleep in their mud brick homes and simple meals of boiled eggs and tea.

The route itself was as daunting as the planning process. The path vaulted from tree line to snow line up two 14,000-foot mountains and traversed rivers and ridges into the villages. It was like an Outward Bound trip, done Silk Road-style. Pondering how women with so few opportunities to get outside would fare across the miles of swamp and shale, I ambled off the path into a crotch-high pit of mud. As an amateur runner myself (and one prone to overreaching on the trail), I was fascinated by Zainab and Nelofar's Gobi tale and had come to see them in action.

Nelofar was short with a soft, feminine build not usually found among long-distance runners. Her petite frame looked strong, however, as she scaled a glacial moraine with Indian music pumping through her earbuds. She had trained well. At home in the North, she jogged daily at dawn in a public park, again under the protection of police. Twenty-five female recruits joined her, and many more had run in two half-marathons she had covertly organized.

If Zainab struggled at the back of the pack, she didn’t say so. She tended to plod, yes, and had lost strength since her last race, but still she was loathe to quit. Setting a good example was important. “After the Gobi, I found that we are in this world to push others, to change others’ lives with our speech,” she said. As she marched along, she talked of a future shaping women’s sport through politics. Of course, it was unwise to be too imaginative, she said. Afghanistan was masterful when it came to obstructing dreams.

The close of the summit brought the athletes down from the mountains and into Band-e-Amir for the final race. Afghanistan’s first national park was a jewel box of turquoise lakes and crystalline waterfalls ornamenting a desolate, dusty plateau. Wealthy Afghan families wrapped in their best silks had hiked in with tea kettles to picnic alongside the glittering pools. Band-e-Amir was their national treasure.

Free to Run had bussed in seventy girls for the hike and race after successful presentations in local schools. Hundreds of schoolgirls, many of whom recognized Zainab, had listened transfixed to the tales of running and climbing and clambered to ask for more opportunities to get outside. Those lucky enough to get their fathers' permission had come along to Band-e-Amir. Though the park was only a two-hour drive from town, few of the girls had ever visited. No one had ever spent the time or money to take them. The delighted children spent the day stomping around the canyon with the adult athletes. 

Now, to close out the week, everyone trudged into place for the footrace. The younger girls looked pretty wilted. Chasing around Band-e-Amir Park all day had left them with little fuel for the race scheduled at dusk, so they behaved as adolescents anywhere would. They whined and tried to get the run canceled. The organizers would have none of it, though. The race was on. 

Toes straightened at the start line, some in slippers, sandals, or heels, all hopelessly muddied by the day’s hike. Nazima and Nazira, two gangly sisters who had run a Free to Run 10k the year before, bent at the waist over their knobby front legs. The other girls followed suit, training their eyes on the finish and not on their crumpling dresses. The senior athletes formed a second row. Nelofar took the rear to urge on stragglers. An Afghan TV cameraman perched and started filming.

The flock exploded forward, sending violet, ruby, and teal veils flapping around fifty unrestrained grins. Plumes of white dust and echoes of laughter trailed the stampede as it vanished over the horizon. The sight of gleeful, sprinting women seemed to fit naturally against the backdrop of the open plateau, except that this was Afghanistan.

The journalists and race organizers stayed crouched in place for a moment, clutching their cameras as the dust flurried over their heads. Mesmerized, each thumbed through shot after shot of unreasonably powerful girls, radiant and unbounded. For a long time, not a single observer would notice Zainab’s silhouette in the back of the photos. There she remained in each frame, head heavy, turning away from the the unseen finish line at the moment a new generation of girls surged ahead.

Lead Photo: Madeline Kane