During my first week in Afghanistan, a colleague and I paid a visit to the “UK Sports Store,” a rather large shop in the Shahr-e Naw neighborhood of Kabul known for its odd assortment of athletic wear and used exercise equipment. In the months leading up to the start of my job at a commercial law firm there, I had made acceptance of the offer almost conditional on the procurement of a treadmill, “one that doesn’t shake, and to which I may have unlimited access.” Running had become a vital part of my life in New York, and not being able to walk, let alone run outside in the city I would soon call home, seemed an almost inconceivable restriction. In preparation for the move, I asked about armored cars, tracking devices, personal protective gear, and concealed carry permits, but mostly I was concerned about whether I would be able to reconcile life in a conflict zone with my running habit. In retrospect, the informal treadmill clause I insisted upon was how I dealt with all the doubts and anxieties I had about moving to Afghanistan. There could be suicide bombings and kidnappings, a resurgent Taliban and a NATO troop drawdown, unfamiliar food, unreliable Internet, and the storied drama of expat life, but if I could run, I was certain that everything would be fine.
Despite my colleague’s protestations, I chose the largest treadmill (the belt looked most reliable), and we managed to fit it in a tiny back room, in the corner, because I may have hit my head on the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling had we centered it in front of the tiny window. My new “gym,” outfitted with a single space heater for winter days and an underpowered plastic fan for summer days, was always too hot or too cold, and with the window open, the dusty air carried with it pungent wafts of sewage from a nearby drain. That room became my respite, though, much like the Jackie Onassis Reservoir had years before. Some days, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine the Reservoir path, shaded by cherry trees and a mile of rhododendrons in bloom.
This Sunday I will run my first marathon, the New York City marathon, in support of an organization that promotes athletics for girls in conflict zones. My work in Afghanistan has more to do with tax policy than human rights, but as a woman working in a conservative environment with strict gender norms, I’ve had occasion to think about the ways in which Afghan women are restricted in how fully they may live their lives. Foreign women avoid public places for fear of random attacks, but Afghan women and girls are constrained by concerns about modesty and societal rules on the use of public spaces. Their ability to run or participate in sports is limited to the private sphere where resources are limited, even in larger cities like Kabul.
It was unthinkable moments of violence, like the brutal killing of Farkhunda by a mob of men who believed, on the strength of a single crazed allegation, that she had burned the Quran, which initially drew my attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan. But it was the fundamental yearning for normalcy and freedom, expressed by women I had come to know, that prompted me to train for a 26.2-mile race in support of programs that would help women and girls gain access to sports.
Afghanistan has been through a security transition, a political transition, and an economic transition in the space of a year and a half, and its future is far from certain. Why, then, support athletics for women and girls when there are seemingly more pressing matters worthy of our attention? While sound economic policy and a functioning rule of law is certainly the bedrock for progress, I have found that smaller initiatives can also have a great impact. As Afghans work to rebuild their country, I think it’s important that young people learn the lessons sports teach, such as self-confidence, leadership, understanding, and tolerance. Indeed, sports can be used as an avenue to freedom and a road toward equality.
Running is exercise and metaphor, as one of my favorite authors once said – it’s about raising the bar for oneself, bit by bit. In Afghanistan, progress comes slowly and in increments, sometimes almost imperceptible, and gains are often complicated by any number of factors that arise in a country struggling to recover from years of war and upheaval.
As I run through the five boroughs this Sunday, I’ll be thinking about the resilient people I’ve met in Afghanistan over the past year, particularly the women, and I hope that my efforts will help at least some of them achieve their own personal goals, athletic and otherwise. There are many paths to self-fulfillment, and to peace, but as running and working in Afghanistan has taught me, most goals are only reached with tireless day-to-day, mile-by-mile effort, accompanied by the belief that we can achieve what we never thought possible.