Training in Secret for Fear of Extremists

Afghanistan's very first fitness and beauty center has recently opened in Kabul. Three years after the fall of the Taliban regime the owner has nonetheless decided to keep its location a secret. By Ali Matar

Afghanistan's very first fitness and beauty center has recently opened in Kabul. The owner has nonetheless decided to keep its location a secret. Three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, she remains fearful of arousing the fury of those aiming to preserve traditional customs and practices. A report by Ali Matar.

photo: AP
Afghan women, too, want to do something to maintain their beauty and keep fit

​​Everyday life for women in Afghanistan differs enormously from that of their counterparts in neighboring countries. Here, they lead a life in extreme isolation.

The changes in the social order following the overthrow of the country's former rulers have resulted in practically no difference for women, as society continues to cling to old customs and practices, with all their positive and negative aspects.

Hardly a single politician has dared to openly and directly demand a change to this situation. They hide behind ambiguous phrases and are satisfied with vague indications that the role of women in Afghan society must change.

First fitness center for women in Afghanistan

Recently, and for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, a fitness and beauty center for women has opened its doors. Nonetheless, the location of the training center has had to remain a secret. Societal traditions must be respected. In addition, the proprietor does not want to risk general opposition to her plans.

There are still enormous misgivings about appearing to revolt against old traditions, even three years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Nothing in the outward appearance of the building indicates that it houses a fitness center for women. A glimpse through the glass front entrance doors provides no clues as to what is going on inside.

The only visible sign indicates that this is a hair salon for women. Once inside, visitors will indeed find a modernly furnished space offering hairdressing, cosmetic treatments, and manicures.

In addition, the usual paraphernalia associated with bridal preparations are on display. Yet, alongside these amenities is a fully equipped fitness club for Afghan women, regardless of age or marital status, who are interested in keeping their bodies in form.

Western music

As a rule, the women in the club have full figures. There is a constant coming and going around the weight reduction and conditioning machines. Western music plays softly in the background, massaging members' ears and calming their nerves.

The club, occupying a space of only 20 square meters, offers 13 machines to choose from, including steppers, tread mills, special fat burners for the stomach and thighs, as well as weights.

Sport in Herat

Since the overthrow of the old regime, young Afghan women have enjoyed undreamt-of opportunities to engage in a diverse range of sporting activities. Since mid-2003, a total of 62 sport clubs have opened, mostly in the larger cities. Eleven of these are located in the regions of Balkh, Herat, Kandahar, Kundus, Baghlan, and Barwan, with the rest in the capital, Kabul.

A good figure is a must

Yet, most of these public, or publicly known, clubs train members in the martial arts, such as karate and judo, although some do offer tennis and volleyball. They are attended by girls and young women who want to practice their chosen sport in a group.

In Afghanistan's only fitness club, however, the mostly married women members have not joined in order to take up some sport, but rather to improve their attractiveness and maintain their health through physical training.

Although the capital Kabul is the most modern and progressive city in Afghanistan, the 20-year-old Ni'mat Suratandjir is convinced that her fitness club still represents an alien element in Afghan society. She says she must remain extremely careful, since most people simply aren't ready to accept such a provocative innovation.

This is the reason why she avoids letting the club's location and its activities become general knowledge. In addition, she has saved a great deal of money, since she shares the premises with the owner of a beauty salon for brides. They each pay 800 dollars for the rent.

This is an enormous amount of money for a poor country like Afghanistan. Before the American occupation, foreigners from the West could rent a house with a swimming pool for around 200 dollars a month. Now, rents for such accommodations start at 3000 dollars. This is also one of the main reasons preventing Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan.

Investing in a slim body

In December, Ni'mat, who also works as a trainer in the club, invested 1500 dollars of her personal and her family's savings to open the club exclusively catering to women. She says that her husband provided every sort of support in realizing her idea.

Her customers are primarily married women, who, after years of childrearing, feel the need to do something about their figures and general appearance. For the unmarried members, the club offers them the opportunity to keep physically fit.

Lower membership dues

Monthly membership dues in the club amount to 50 dollars, which corresponds to 2500 Afghanis, the local currency. Some of the women can't afford the price, so Ni'mat feels obliged to accept them for less money.

As a result, she often can't cover her expenses – meaning she runs the business at a loss. Yet, Ni'mat now has 15 regular customers, who would like to train even more once the club is able to expand the number of training machines.

A club without a name

The 35-year-old Shakila, a staff worker for an NGO, explains that the club owner has refrained from declaring her club as a fitness center for women in order to avoid a negative public reaction.

An attack on the club is a definite possibility should it ever become known what goes on inside. Many Afghans even oppose girls attending school. It is not hard to imagine how they would react to a fitness club for women.

Shakila relates how during the 1980s, it was possible for her to maintain a normal weight by playing volleyball and basketball. She has since put on a number of kilos and her general condition has deteriorated.

There are just too few opportunities for women to keep physically fit. The proliferation of similar clubs could help Afghan women to get a grip on the problem, if, that is, the owners can avoid the stern eye of extremists.

After the mujahideen gained control of Kabul in 1992, Shakila's weight climbed to 84 kilos. She had married, given up her work, and daily life consisted of eating, sleeping, and childrearing. Since becoming a member of the secret club in December, she has already lost 10 kilos. All of her aches and pains that arose from physical inactivity have also disappeared.

Ali Matar

© Qantara 2005

Translation from German: John Bergeron

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