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There are 30 pools in Afghanistan, only one that welcomes girls -and it is facing militant threats for doing so.Nevertheless a handful are diving in, pioneers racing to achieve Olympic glory in Tokyo.
The story of the 25-year-old coach and head of the Women's Swimming Committee, Elena Saboori, epitomises the struggle to swim in a conservative, conflict-plagued country that largely opposes women taking part in sports. A woman friend first took her for swimming, but after that she taught herself by downloading videos and practicing in the pool in Kabul. “I was afraid of drowning, but that's when I thought I'd become a coach, because girls do not know how to swim here,“ said Saboori, an economics student. Saboori said that she had been advised to stay away from the pool after violent threats were made for allowing her team to train there. “I know that I have broken a taboo. I took a big risk by launching this team.“
The risks include a burgeoning Taliban insurgency . But Afghanistan's patriarchal, ultra-conservative society , where many believe women should be veiled and confined to the home, adds another layer of risk. Saboori and her team cannot swim with their backs, arms or thighs exposed. The team is in touch with a Brazilian firm to design swimwear. Until then, they wear tights and black lycra, long-sleeved tops under one-piece swimsuits, with a swimming cap covering their hair.
“The main obstacle for our swimmers is safety, of course,“ said the president of the Afghan Federation of Swimming, Sayed Ihsan Taheri. “We aim to be at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, with a team of at least two men and one woman.“ That woman will be Afghanistan's first ever female Olympic swimmer.
Challenges of poor infrastructure and a patriarchal culture have been compounded by government's lack of support. “All Muslim countries except Afghanistan have a women's team, even the strictest,“ said Taheri, citing Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The government has even blocked the allocation of 500 Afghanis (less than $8) paid monthly to members of national sports teams. He has launched a fundraiser to finance high-level athletes. “We have raised $900 so far.“