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Fighting a ‘double curse’: Afghan hopefuls for Paralympic gold

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Prejudice faced by Afghan women with a disability has proved no barrier to its national wheelchair basketball team

Tue 12 Mar 2019

Last modified on Tue 12 Mar 2019

Nilofar Bayat played her first game of wheelchair basketball in an open court in the middle of Kabul, surrounded by mainly male onlookers who shouted insults and called her names.

She decided to keep playing anyway.

Today, the 24-year-old captain and her all-female team are preparing to qualify for next year’s Paralympic games in Tokyo – a challenge, but hardly the only one the young team is facing.

“Sometimes our training sessions are cancelled due to insecurity, and many players don’t have their family’s support. A number of women even dropped out after getting married. Their husbands wouldn’t let them play,” says Bayat, adding that – especially in such tough circumstances – she is proud to play internationally.

Strapped into wheelchairs, the team whizzes across the gym, their hands covered in grey dust from accelerating the wheels. Basketballs fly through the air as loud cheers echo. The majority of players have full-time jobs, so training takes place as the sun rises during their free weekends.

Afghanistan’s female national wheelchair basketball team only started competing internationally two years ago, at the Bali Cup. It did not stop them from taking home the gold medal. The team of 12 has since participated in the Asian Para Games, and will travel to Thailand later this year in an effort to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

A few things have changed for the better since the team first picked up a basketball in 2012. For starters, they now have their own gym, nestled between Kabul’s hills, offering privacy from the staring crowds. In 2014, the country’s wheelchair basketball federation was recognised internationally, paving the way for the women to compete around the world.

Afghanistan now has 126 female players in different cities across the country; most of them are striving to become Paralympic champions.

“They progressed dramatically,” says Shukrullah Zeerak, vice-president of the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan. “All they had was basic equipment. No weights, no place to work out or do strength training. Just wheelchairs and basketballs.”

There is also a huge value for the women in finding a like-minded community, and a place to discuss everyday difficulties with close friends. “Being a woman in Afghanistan and living with a disability is almost a double curse,” says Bayat.

The number of people living with disabilities in Afghanistan is rising and, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 2,000 wheelchairs and 22,000 prosthetics were provided last year. About 1.5 million people – or one in 20 – lives with some kind of physical disability in Afghanistan, many of them caused by decades of war.

Bayat was a toddler when her family’s house in Kabul was hit by a rocket during the Taliban regime. Pieces of shrapnel injured her spinal cord and burned her back. Her brother was killed.

“I was in hospital for a year and had one surgery after another,” she recalls, adding that she hopes to recover further. In recent years, she’s been working for the ICRC, supporting her family with her income. Her biggest fan is her father, who defends her when other family members complain about her playing sports. But, she says, he is the exception. “Men here don’t want to admit that women are strong. We’re not at the table of decision-makers.”

Sitting in her wheelchair, she watches her team warm up from the corner of the gym. “I still believe women are stronger. I see a lot of men give up, but I see my friends – even those with disabilities – go far,” she says.

Like most of the team, Bayat only began travelling outside Afghanistan with the start of their international competitions and, she admits, it’s tough. “Our backgrounds are different. Some players are war-wounded like me, others are amputees or paraplegic. All of us travel with wheelchairs, a lot of luggage and a lot of help,” she says.

Whether the team will qualify for next year’s Paralympic games is still up in the air, but the women are optimistic.

“We’re starting to practise more often. We feel confident and will keep cheering each other on,” says Mulkara Rahimi, a 30-year-old basketball player and physical therapist who’s had trouble walking ever since suffering polio in childhood. “Due to constant insecurity, it’s difficult to find good coaches, too,” she says.

Mohammedullah Ahmedi, 40, the team’s current coach, has taken over as trainer after several short-term foreign coaches left the country. “Many think it’s not safe to come here,” he says.

As he wheels across the gym, shouting instructions to the team, a tyre suddenly bursts and a loud bang echoes through the hall. The women freeze for a moment, exchanging looks of panic. A second later, laughter erupts. The women are relieved but acknowledge that fear sits deep.

“We’ve only seen war, and we still think about war a lot,” says Rahimi. “You know, my family actually doesn’t like me playing basketball. It’s tough for women, but we will keep fighting – for a changed future generation and for a Paralympic medal.”


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