KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Young athletes in flowing head scarves bob and weave, jabbing the stale air of their darkened training room here at Ghazi National Olympic Stadium.
A cracked mirror on the wall reflects the line of female figures in red Puma tracksuits punching, sidestepping and hopping across the worn red and green mats at their coach's command.
"Change! Change! Change!" shouts Mohammad Sabir Sharifi.
Sharifi, 52, checks his watch: 3:15 p.m. His team of Olympic hopefuls has just started practice, but in only an hour they must be escorted home for their own safety.
"Breathe," he tells them.
For four years, about 20 women and girls, 12 to 22, have been meeting like this, an hour at a time, three days a week, beneath the stadium where the Taliban once publicly executed women accused of adultery.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, April 29, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Afghan female boxers: An article in Section A on April 28 about an Afghan women's boxing program misspelled the first name of boxer Fahima Rahimi as Fatima.
In 1996, the Taliban banned all women's sports as a violation of Islamic law, the same year it barred women from most jobs. Four years later, the Afghan Olympic team, which had competed at the Summer Games since 1936, was excluded from the Sydney Games because of the Taliban's prohibitions on sports and discrimination against women. Now Sharifi hopes his team will show the world the new face of Afghanistan at the 2012 London Olympics, the first to include women's boxing.
But that face is often difficult to envision in a culture where girls are pressured to quit school and marry young. With the U.S. scheduled to begin withdrawing forces from the country in July, it is not clear how much support will remain for women undertaking nontraditional pursuits. Their boxing days may be fleeting.
Fatima Rahimi, 20, wearing a white hijab, or head covering, braces a punching bag and instructs a teammate on the finer points of executing a left uppercut. On the walls around her, Afghan boxers beam in photographs, arms raised in Rocky-style triumph, all of them male.
Why does she box?
"I should be able to defend myself," she says, but does not have time to say against what before Sharifi calls for a new round of drills.
The clock above the broken mirror reads 3:45 p.m.
The boxing team, "Fighting for Peace," was started by several male coaches and boxing stars with support from the Afghan nonprofit Cooperation for Peace and Unity and the international nonprofit Oxfam. In 2007, the coaches also founded the Afghan Amateur Women Boxing Assn. under the auspices of the Afghan Olympic Federation.
Sharifi, who started boxing in 1980 and fought on the national team for eight years, said he wanted to develop a women's team to counter the image of the submissive, burka-clad Afghan woman. He is training young women to become not only powerful, strategic boxers, but also leaders of a new Afghanistan. A few times a year, the women attend workshops sponsored by Cooperation for Peace and Unity about promoting peace and conflict resolution.
Rahimi and her two younger sisters box. They have always been both athletic and religious and never saw that as a contradiction. When their high school gym teacher told them about the new boxing program, they begged their father, a taxi driver, for permission to join. Their parents were supportive even though they worried that the girls could get hurt. They got over that pretty quickly, Rahimi said.
Then came the threats.
Last year, a stranger called their house to deliver a warning.
"You're not supposed to let your daughters go to boxing," the man said.
Other female boxers had been threatened, but never harmed. Still, their father was so frightened that he kept the girls home from school and did not allow them to return to practice until Sharifi called to reassure him.
Sharifi, too, has received threats. That is the old Afghanistan, he says. He has no time to worry. He has to get the Rahimi sisters, among the few female fighters with enough talent and training to make it to the next Olympics, ready for upcoming tournaments that could qualify them for London.
Sharifi summons Shabnam Rahimi, 18 and about 5 feet tall, to spar with him in front of the team. He considers her an exemplary fighter: disciplined and proud.
She does not flinch when she faces off against the coach, a trim Telly Savalas look-alike nearly a foot taller than she is. Instead, she keeps her large brown eyes locked on him, gloves up, sweat rolling off her brow and into her curly black hair as she works her cross.
Normally, Shabnam and the other women do not wear scarves under their headgear during bouts, although they do wear more modest dress than other boxers, including long pants, which the International Boxing Assn. last year ruled permissible, along with head scarves, at the Olympics.