Changing minds about girls playing sports in Afghanistan takes the support of religious leaders – and they are starting to get on board.
Mullahs trained by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Afghanistan are preaching about women’s rights and have conducted workshops on girls’ education, child marriage and violence against women that have reached thousands of people and are slowly changing attitudes.
“At first, the villagers were really annoying, telling me that a girl in sports clothes is against Islam and our culture,” says 18-year-old Masooma, who just wanted to go skiing. “They said, ‘Girls don’t have the right to ski – only boys can do sport. Girls are born to learn household chores, like cooking and cleaning.’”
UNDP Afghanistan trained more than 400 mullahs across the country to preach about women’s rights in Friday prayers. Abdul Rahman Redwani is one of the mullahs who started incorporating these issues into his sermons after the training. “Previously, local people didn’t let their girls learn how to read or write,” he recalls. “When girls went skiing the for first time, people gossiped that they were too westernized. But our Friday sermons helped change their minds.”
“Now a lot of girls and women come to watch us ski,” smiles Masooma, “which was not possible a few years back. This motivates me and encourages other girls to start skiing.”
No, I’m not involved in this project. But I would love to read all I can about it, and support it however I can, because leveraging the cultural and religious beliefs can be a great strategy for encouraging women’s equality – something I learned in Afghanistan as well. Back in 2007, when I put together a workshop on to help my Afghan co-workers in Kabul feel more comfortable speaking in public, I did a lot of research, and learned that women speakers, teachers and leaders have always been important in Muslim society, including in Afghanistan. So I put this into my training, talking about the public speaking and leadership roles of Khadija, first wife of the Prophet, Aisha, the favored wife of Muhammad, and Muhammad’s daughters, as well as Rabia Balkhi, a poet of Afghanistan and Razia, a Muslim woman ruler of 13th-century India.