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Kabul's scarved boxers

Female Olympic hopefuls train at a stadium where the Taliban used to publicly execute women

April 28, 2011|Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Shabnam and the others almost always wear scarves in practice. No one forces her but she has read the Koran, she says, and believes it is her duty as a Muslim woman to be modest. Today, though, she forgot her extra boxing scarf at home. With no time to find a substitute, she is boxing bareheaded, black ponytail curling down her back as an Afghan television crew films over her shoulder.

Her younger sister Sadaf, 17, and a teammate were scheduled to compete at the AIBA International Boxing Assn. Women's Junior/Youth World Boxing Championships in Antalya, Turkey, the following week. Sadaf, who is finishing 12th grade, traveled to Istanbul to train. She called home to tell her sisters about the fancy Turkish training facility, equipment and coaches. Sadaf and her teammate eventually lost their matches against opponents from Vietnam and the Maldives.

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.

As she practices, Shabnam can't help noticing the shabby boxing bags, gloves and hand wraps. The women receive a weekly stipend but it is not enough to buy new punching bags or build a boxing ring. Still, she knows the rundown facility is not a slight to the women: The country's three men's boxing teams train in the same place and with the same equipment.

Sharifi talks about moving his team to a new $200,000 training facility, complete with boxing ring, that the Afghanistan Boxing Federation is building nearby. But the ring might not open in time for the Rahimi sisters.

They are not Sharifi's first proteges. Shala Sekandari, 20, with her powerful left uppercut, won a lightweight bronze medal at the Asian indoor games in Vietnam in 2009 and was on track to qualify for the Olympics. Then three months ago she got married.

Sharifi says Sekandari will help coach the team. Fatima Rahimi just shakes her head.

"She is married," she says. "She is not coming anymore."

Fatima is not engaged, yet. She has been studying medicine, but was considering switching to pursue a degree in literature. But she does not rule out getting married soon. And if she does, she too may quit boxing.

"It depends on my future husband," she says with a shy smile. "If he wants me to continue, I will."

Shabnam is more determined. She idolizes not just Laila Ali but Laila's father, the great Muhammad Ali, the way he once floated, light on his feet, too fast for the blows to find him.

Shabnam is quick, too, but knows the sting of a connecting punch and the damage it can do. When she competed with Sekandari in Vietnam, she was beaten by a stronger opponent. During practice, she has twice broken the middle finger on her left hand. Pain will not make her quit.

"Even if I lose my nose, I will keep coming to boxing," she says as girls behind her jump rope and yank off sweaty black gloves to rewrap their hands.

"Stop," says the coach.

It is past 4 p.m. Time is up.

One of the men's boxing teams arrives and the women exit quickly. They speed down the long stone corridor to the locker room, where they trade sneakers and T-shirts for street clothes: rhinestone-edged heels and metal-studded sandals, blue jeans and gilded head scarves.

Outside, a driver waits to take them home.

Shabnam emerges with a friend, Seyamoi Seamoy, 18, both wearing backpacks. Arm in arm, the boxers make their way past the eerie calm of the stadium where women were once stoned and shot as they cowered in their burkas. At the stadium gates, adorned with a rainbow of Olympic rings, they pass a pair of Afghan soldiers in flak jackets keeping watch with a machine gun.

The pair are too busy giggling to notice, spilling out their dreams of becoming a journalist and a doctor. They will be back again on Monday.

"We work for the future," Sharifi says, "because the past is lost."

--

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.

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