Afghanistan’s first Olympian says women won’t easily give up their freedoms

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When the judoka competed in Athens, her father and one of her brothers told her it was as if she had taken the “first step to the moon”.

It wasn’t just a special time for Rezayee: it was an important time for women across Afghanistan. Judoka was now the symbol of a society which, although far from perfect, was finally changing.

But now the Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan, and Rezayee fears the gains made for women’s lives over the past 20 years may be lost.

Taliban leaders recently expressed their commitment to a “general amnesty” for all in Afghanistan, including members of the Afghan army and interpreters, but Rezayee says the future will be bleak for women in the country .

“After they [the Taliban] to settle down, they have established their government, they will go after the people who have spoken out against them, “Rezayee, 33, told CNN Sport.

“Women who went to school, women who went to university and women who played sports.

Born and raised in Afghanistan, Rezayee moved to Canada as a refugee in 2011 and has since created a non-profit organization, “Women Leaders of Tomorrow,” which advocates for women’s rights in Afghanistan.
The GOAL (Girls of Afghanistan Lead) initiative also seeks to help female judokas compete and represent their country on the world stage.

Since the Taliban invaded the capital Kabul, Rezayee says the women she works with now fear for their lives.

“I am in contact with them every day. They send me heartbreaking messages,” she said.

“Recently, Afghan female athletes visited the dojo (judo training hall). They held hands. They hugged each other on their freedom day.

“They’re also texting me, begging for their lives, for their safety. All these women leaders or human rights activists want to flee the country. They want to flee the Taliban for obvious reasons.

Friba Rezayee in Vancouver, Canada, where she moved in 2011.
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“A movement for freedom, for freedom, for life”

Rezayee says she still remembers the brutality and oppression of the Taliban’s “unimaginable” regime.

She fled to Pakistan with her family after the group’s first regime began in 1996, but returned after the US invasion in 2001 and set about making the most of the freedoms that were restored.

It was as a refugee in Pakistan that Rezayee says she fell in love with boxing.

She remembers watching heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on a crackling little TV screen and being inspired by Laila Ali, the daughter of sports legend Muhammad Ali.

“I fell in love with the power of Laila Ali, the icon that she was. I wanted to do the same,” said Rezayee.

Upon her return to Afghanistan, she enrolled in a girls’ school and began training with a boxing coach, feeling empowered by the sport.

“Over the past two decades Afghan women have worked so hard, they have had so many accomplishments,” she said.

“Women went to school, they had careers. Women ran for office, women ran businesses – you name it – Afghan women did it.”

Find Judo

Except that all layers of Afghan society were not ready to accept these freedoms for women.

Rezayee says she started receiving death threats and her trainer eventually said it was too dangerous to continue training. The coach put her in touch with another coach, who introduced her to judo.

With the help of a charity, she fell in love with the discipline of martial arts and trained alongside two other girls – the only women in the whole country to compete in judo, she says.

“It was a big milestone for us and a big moment,” added Rezayee.

“[It was] very dangerous because society was not ready to see female athletes at that time because they were just finishing and just coming out of the dark Taliban regime.

“It was extremely dangerous, but I was training hard. I didn’t care about the social stigma, what my relatives and society… were saying.

“I believed in myself and I believed in other girls and I believed in sports.”

The Taliban knocked on his door 3 times.  The fourth time they killed her

After competing locally, Rezayee was finally selected to represent her country at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

She was one of only two Afghan women to compete in Greece – the other being 100m sprinter Robina Muqim Yaar – but scheduling the judo and track and field events saw Rezayee be the first woman to participate in the official competition, she said.

She faced a four-time world champion from Spain and lost in the first round, but nonetheless left an indelible mark in Afghan history.

“I didn’t win. I was very sad, I was heartbroken. I called my dad and my older brother in Afghanistan and told them I was so sorry I didn’t win, I let you down, ”she said.

“But my dad and one of my brothers said, ‘Don’t worry, you didn’t win, but you made history.'”

However, upon returning to Afghanistan, Rezayee says she was forced into hiding for a few months.

She said fundamentalists in the country “wanted her dead” and that she also feared for the safety of her family.

After a family tragedy in 2005, Rezayee fled to Pakistan again before finally seeking refuge in Canada in 2011.

She has not returned to her beloved country since 2013 but does not regret her decision to represent Afghan women on the world stage.

“I wanted to show the patriarchy in Afghanistan that women are equal (to) men and that they can participate,” she said.

“And I also wanted women’s competitions, women’s sports, women’s rights to be very normal in the eyes of the patriarchy and others and also to show the world that there are women in Afghanistan and that they play sports. “

“We will become a resistance group”

Watching the news unfold over the past few days has devastated Rezayee, and she says she’s afraid of what this diet will do.

Despite their public statements, she does not believe the Taliban has changed and has called on world leaders to overthrow the newly formed regime.

More positively, she thinks there is still a chance that women could represent Afghanistan at future Olympic Games. She is working on a project to send Afghan judokas to Paris in 2024 and called on world sport governing bodies to help Afghan athletes.

In a statement to CNN, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it “was monitoring the situation and was in contact with the sports community in Afghanistan.”

“At the same time, we have passed on relevant information to a number of responsible governments. For obvious reasons of the safety of those concerned, we would not comment further at this stage,” the statement continued.

CNN has also contacted the Afghan Olympic Committee but has yet to receive a response.

Despite the chaos and traumatic images coming across the country this week, Rezayee still has hope.

This, she said, is something the Taliban can never take away from Afghan women.

“My message to Afghan women in Afghanistan right now is to stay strong. It’s a nightmare, but the nightmares don’t last very long,” she said.

“We will get there. At the very least, we will become a resistance group. We will fight for our rights no matter what.

“We once lost our rights in the 1990s – we’re not going to let that happen again. Stay strong. Stay in touch. Stay very smart, too.

“I believe in peace. Peace, prosperity and human rights will prevail.

“Everyone dies for peace.

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