It is 6.30am and Nazira Khairzad, 18, and her older sister Nazima, 19, are sat with their family trying to eat the spread of breakfast laid out in front of them, despite their nerves. It is the start of the two-day Afghan Ski Challenge in the central highland province of Bamyan, and the women’s race is kicking off in just a few hours’ time. Not only are the pair the ones to watch but, as soon as they are on the slopes, they are one another’s direct competition.
“I’m nervous but I think I have a good chance of placing first this year,” says Nazira. “That’s what I’m aiming for.”
With their bellies full and nervousness giving way to excitement, the pair don their skiing apparel and indulge in pre-race rituals. The sisters kiss their fingertips before touching them to a framed photograph hanging on the wall of their grandfather, they kiss the Qur’an, and then their mother, Oliya, waves money, which will later be given to a family in need, over her daughters’ heads for good luck.
Skiing is relatively new to Bamyan but its popularity is blooming. The sport has become an integral part of the community, interestingly playing a crucial role in the expansion of women’s rights. The sisters are members of Bamyan Ski Club which organises the annual competition.
The club relies heavily on donor contributions but, with the fallout of Covid-19, these donations have significantly reduced. Instead, the Afghan Sports Trust stepped in and issued a grant to allow the club to continue training young female skiers aged from eight to their early 20s. In addition to improving their skiing, the aim was to develop leadership skills and to build self-confidence. Nazira has directly benefited from the training.
“I’m very sporty. I play volleyball, hockey and I run – but skiing is my favourite. I like it because there is an element of danger; it can be very scary on the slopes at times,” Nazira tells the Guardian with a smile as she shows off her collection of medals and trophies a few days before the race.
Her sister, who now studies in Kabul, travelled back to Bamyan a day before the competition but has taken part in the training during previous years. Last year, she travelled to Pakistan for a skiing competition and placed third.
Although gains towards gender equality have been made since the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan remains a very conservative Muslim country. While the extent to which women face restrictions depends on the area they live in, many still face constraints on their access to education and jobs compared with men. The overall perception of women in the heavily patriarchal society is often one of daintiness, and femininity is seen as a weakness.
So young ladies ploughing snowy slopes, wearing ski clothing that does not always conform to societal norms, and doing so alongside boys, is quite a revelation.
Co-manager of Bamyan Ski Club, Sajjad Husaini, says gender equality is an increasingly important thread of the province’s social fabric. He says the onslaught inflicted by the Taliban forced people to flee the area. Many went overseas, sometimes to more conservative places such as Iran, but also to more liberal destinations such as Pakistan.
“To see other places and cultures and then returning to live among people with different experiences has increased people’s tolerance. We’ve also had many international organisations working here which have been focused on getting women in work,” says Husaini.
That is not to say the club has not faced difficulties. More conservative residents still communicate their discontent at the fact both genders train together, says Husaini, but they work with those people to find peace. “There are seven ski clubs here now. If the Taliban had tried to stop girls taking part in the sport a few years ago, then they probably would have succeeded, but it’s become an entrenched part of the community here.”
Crucially, the role of the club goes beyond skiing. Days out together are often organised for a football kickabout or a trip to the stunning nearby national park, Band-e-Amir. In the winter, the frozen lakes are great for playing sports and ice-skating; in the summer, there is swimming or picnics.
Now in its 11th year, the Afghan Ski Challenge is an international one but the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered foreigners’ participation. It incorporates a women’s slalom, a wooden ski race and, on the second day, the main event which has male competitors first hike 500m up the slope before skiing back down again. Facilities are nonexistent – there are no ski lifts or restaurants here – but it is an event the community thoroughly looks forward to.
Bamyan – famous for its giant Buddhas which were blown up by the Taliban in 2001 – is considerably more open-minded than many other parts of the country, but that does not mean equality has been achieved yet. The sisters have supportive parents, particularly their father, Nematullah, but this is not the case in every household.
“When I was young there wasn’t the opportunity for an education because of the war, and there were no sports,” says the father-of-four who has built a modest but comfortable home in an up-and-coming area of the town. “I don’t want my children to be like me – I want them to be able to study and experience the world. All of my children should be free to try any sport they like,” he says.
The family are originally from a remote village called Kahmard, about 50km from Bamyan town, which is considerably more conservative. At times, the parents face difficulties because of the freedom they afford their daughters. “I am criticised by relatives in Kahmard for allowing my daughters to take part in sports but I just ignore them,” says Nematullah, who adds that he was very proud of his daughter for winning a medal while representing her country in Pakistan.
Just down the road lives Nazira’s friend Tayeba Ibrahimi. When the pair are together they are usually kicking a football around or throwing a volleyball over a net. Although Tayeba is allowed to ski, her parents have a different viewpoint to Nazira’s.
“My brother is the one who pushes my parents to give me more freedom,” says the quiet 17-year-old, who adds that she enjoys skiing for the adrenaline rush she feels when shredding through the snow at high speed. She hopes her interest in sports will lead to travel to compete in competitions around the world.
Sitting in their pleasantly decorated and spacious home, her parents say they find gossiping about their daughter’s activities considerably more difficult to brush off. “It would be easier if Tayeba was a boy because no one would be talking about us behind our backs saying that we’re not good Muslims for letting her participate in sports,” says her mother, Amina. Amina admits that although she would allow her sons to go overseas, she would be reluctant to let one of her daughters do so.
On the other side of the town centre, in a village where the modest homes are constructed from mud and straw, and built into the cliff face, Najiye Mohammadi, 17, lives with her family.
Her mother, Oliya, used to be a shepherdessbefore moving into the town with Najiye’s father, so a physically capable woman is a familiar concept, yet it is still her husband who makes the decisions in the household. Fortunately, he is very supportive of his daughter’s interest in sports.
“Skiing is my favourite sport because of the speed. When you spend hours walking up the slope to then spend just minutes coming back down it’s exhilarating,” says Najiye, who plans on studying law at university and dreams of travelling to Japan one day. “My father really encourages me a lot. Both my parents have shown me I can succeed on my own,” she says.
Despite the differing stances from each set of parents, the women have one thing in common; they all aspire for lives that take them out of the small mountain town, to be something other than housewives. Sport has played a big part in that.
Out on the slopes, just minutes before the start of the race, the four ladies are trying to focus on the challenge ahead of them. Nematullah has been able to take the morning off work to come and watch his two daughters compete, much to Nazira and Nazima’s delight.
The women’s slalom requires competitors to ski down the course twice, snaking around fluorescent gates. The person able to complete both runs in the quickest time is crowned the winner. All four ladies give it their best shot with Nazira and Nazima looking like they have speed on their side. That is until Nazima suddenly takes a tumble as she rounds a bottom gate, losing all chances of securing a gold medal. Instead, Nazira manages to carve out a winning time of one minute 27 seconds, shredding through the snow with a look of steely determination as she sweeps across the finish line.
Nazira is awarded 10,000 Afs (£94) as she stands on the podium, enjoying the rounds of applause at her triumph. Her father is elated at his youngest daughter’s win, adding a further 3,000 Afs from his own pocket to her prize money.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘you can do, you can do it,’” says Nazira, thrilled with her achievement.
As the car bumped along the winding single-track dirt road back to the town and phone signal became available again, her father’s mobile started ringing as family members called to find out the results of the race. Brimming with pride, Nematullah, told them Nazira was a champion and when they arrived home, the sisters were welcomed by sweets on the doorstep and hugs from their mother.