Where the Men are Scarier than the Minefield on the Mountain

Photo by Louis Meunier (CC BY 3.0)

Afghan women have few rights — they’re expected to live life according to the wishes of their fathers and the husbands they’re made to marry as teens. Considered “worthless” by some, women are required to spend their lives cooking and cleaning and raising children. Because they’re denied an education and even the right to exercise to improve their physical fitness, some feel resigned to domestic dronery. At Outside, Theresa Breuer reports on Ascend, a mountaineering program that empowers Afghan women to take control of their lives by teaching them how to climb a mountain. While the mountain itself offers life-threatening risks from altitude sickness and a path through an actual minefield, the girls and their families face even greater risks at home from members of the community who want to keep women in the kitchen and who use terror and violence to impose their will.

To run Ascend, which typically has 11 employees, seven board members, and multiple volunteers, Marina travels to Afghanistan four times a year. She visits girls’ schools to promote the program and invites students to apply. There are usually about 20 members, ranging in age from 15 to 23. The economic background of the young women’s families is varied, but most are poor. Team members must participate six days a week, after school and on weekends, for at least nine months. They interview with Marina, Ascend program leaders, and prominent women in the community to demonstrate their commitment. Once accepted, the girls need to get their families’ permission.

“Afghanistan is a predominantly Muslim, very culturally conservative country with strict rules about what women can and can’t do,” Marina says. “It would threaten the girls’ lives if their fathers didn’t approve. Each woman who’s part of Ascend takes a risk. So does her family. There’s a lot of extremism in Afghanistan. Honor killings still happen. Male relatives feel obligated to protect the family honor, and a girl who does something perceived to dishonor the family can be punished by any of them.”

While the women’s fathers have given permission for them to participate, not all have done so enthusiastically. One let his daughter join because “he had nothing better for her to do.” He made sure to tell Marina what he thought of her efforts: “You’re wasting your time. Everybody knows that girls are worthless.”

Many Afghan girls internalize these sentiments. When asked to describe herself, Neki responded, “When I was born, no one was happy, because I was a girl.” Shogufa, who has a close relationship with her father, remembers an old story that her grandmother told her: “ ‘When a girl crosses underneath a rainbow, she will turn into a boy.’ Whenever a rainbow appeared, I chased it.”

The four Ascend members climbing Noshaq—Hanifa, Shogufa, Freshta Ibrahimi, and Neki Hai­dari—were chosen for their physical strength and the skills they demonstrated on training climbs, in addition to their emotional endurance and commitment to the program. Just a few years ago, none of them could have imagined coming to Noshaq’s rugged terrain.

Like Freshta, Hanifa knew nothing about mountaineering before Shogufa convinced her to give it a try. Once Hanifa was in the mountains, she says, “I felt like I got free from a cage. I decided that from now on, I want to be a powerful woman who, when I see someone whose hand has fallen, I will take their hand and help them. No longer should women feel weak.”

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