KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Homa Yusafzai felt terrible. She was overweight, had diabetes and high blood pressure, and only 27 felt emaciated and depressed.
Then she heard that Kandahar’s first women’s health club had just opened, the miracle she had been waiting for, she thought. Initially, her husband refused to let her go. Kandahar is a deeply conservative city, a former Taliban headquarters where men still dictate the most prosaic details of women’s lives.
But in the end he gave up and Ms. Yusafzai already trains six days a week, straining through repetitions of the weight of her arms and hitting the ungrateful. In six months, she said she had lost nearly 50 kilograms, lowered her blood pressure and controlled her diabetes.
The health club was inaugurated late last year by Mariam Durani, a 36-year-old, adamant women’s rights activist who survived two suicide bombings, attempted murder and countless death threats – not to mention harsh public condemnation of the opening of the club.
The gym has survived, housed in a windowless basement in a locked building, protected from prying eyes. This is the latest addition to Khadija Kubra’s Women’s Association, run by Ms. Durani with her father’s help since 2004. It includes a radio station, English and women’s literacy classes, an Islamic school and a clothing sewing center. made by women.
It is rare for Afghan women to play sports, although several women’s health clubs and even two women’s swimming pools have opened in the capital, Kabul. But in conservative fortresses like Kandahar, many men disapprove of women trying to take control of their own bodies.
“Kandahar is a very difficult environment for women,” Ms. Durani said. “We have to be careful and discreet.”
She added: “The club is as much about women’s mental health as it is about their physical health. Almost every woman who comes here is depressed. “
Approximately 40 percent of club members play sports in secret, hiding training from their families, Ms. Durani said. Membership had dropped from 60 in the spring to 30 now due to a three-month closure of the coronavirus and because some women feared their families would find out their secret training sessions.
“My father and brothers told me they would kill me if I went to a health club,” said a gym member who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Tamana.
Tamana, 33, was dressed in white clothes traditionally worn to study the Qur’an in a madrasa, an excuse she gives her family to leave home to train at the club two hours a day, six days a week. She disguises herself in a workout at the gym, hitting a treadmill, a stationary bike and arm weights.
“I’m not doing anything bad or embarrassing,” Tamana said. “It’s actually something that made me a happier and healthier person.”
But the gym is constantly under threat. Soon after it opened, it was flooded with filthy social media posts by outraged residents. It was called a prostitution house, where prostitutes practiced to make them more attractive to men. Mocked and insulted, Ms. Durani was told to close the club and send the women home to her husbands.
“I was shocked that they called my daughter a prostitute – that they said no man with dignity would allow such a thing,” said Ms. Durani’s father, Hadji Mohammad Esa, an 82-year-old, sinewy, white-bearded former teacher who owns of the complex which includes the gym.
Club members say they were harassed and offered by men outside the club. Several were hit by stones thrown by men on motorcycles, threatening to kill them if they continued to visit the club, Ms Durani said.
Some members always cover their hair with scarves during exercise – out of modesty or tradition, Ms Durani said. (A male reporter was allowed to interview women in the gym, but not during training and only while they were fully covered. A female photographer from The New York Times was allowed to photograph fitness clients with their consent.)
“If people see us training without being covered, it will create a bad image for us,” said Ms. Yousafzai.
The club has a coach who leads exercises and teaches nutrition and diets. Ms. Yusafzai said she abandoned meat, rice and bread in favor of vegetables and fruits. He no longer eats sugar or chocolate and has meat and rice only once a week, she said.
Mumtaz Faizi, 32, said her husband encouraged her to join the gym. After two months on a treadmill and a stationary bike, plus sit-ups and weight training, she has lost 11 kilograms and is determined to lose another 30, she said.
Ms. Faizi said she felt calm and free in the sanctuary of the gym. However, she said she did not feel completely relieved of stress and worries.
“In this society, men create all the problems,” she said. “This is our culture, not just the Taliban. They are long gone, but men still control everything. “
Several men in the neighborhood said they approved of the club, as long as the women were protected from public opinion. They said Kandahar did not have safe places for women to exercise.
“Women need more exercise than men because they stay home and gain weight, which causes illness,” said Abdul Wali Wafa, 30.
Sardar Mohammad, 40, said most older men strongly disapproved of the club, but younger men had little objection. “If the environment is safe and protects women, everything is fine,” he said.
Mr Essa, who runs the radio station, said he saw fitness as a small step in returning Afghanistan to what it considered its glorious years of the 1960s and early 1970s, when he recalled a progressive government and freedoms for women.
“We are now an extremist country,” he said. “I would sacrifice my life if Afghanistan could go back to that time.”
So far, he said, it gives him great pleasure to see women training and improving their health, and only for 250 Afghans ($ 3.50) a month. He also likes to annoy his daughter, who said she lost weight after regular workouts at the gym.
“He told me I was too fat,” Ms. Durani told him. “Now tell me I have to eat more, or I’ll get sick.”
For Ms. Yusafzai, the club provides a welcome refuge. “I relax when I’m here and forget about everything outside, at least for a while,” she said.
Taimur Shah contributed with reports from Kandahar