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How Afghan Women Secretly Learn Judo — Over Whatsapp

A martial arts coach and his former student are training women in Afghanistan virtually from Norway.

In a sprawling underground martial arts training centre in the Haugerud neighbourhood in Norway’s capital, Oslo, Qudsia Khalili steps onto the judo mat and comes face-to-face with her training partner.

The partner, a stern-looking Norwegian woman with tightly braided hair, grabs the young Afghan by the collar of her blue judogi – the sport’s traditional uniform – and violently whips her off balance.

Khalili lands on the mat with a tremendous thud.

The sound echoes across the dimly lit cavernous training hall.

Members of the national Norwegian judo team, who are training in the same room, look over, concerned, but Khalili stands up, brushes herself off and continues.

Though unassuming and soft-spoken, the 22-year-old transforms into a formidable fighting force the moment she steps onto a judo mat.

While Khalili and her opponent spar, in the corner of the room, a phone is propped up against a solitary pillar broadcasting the session over WhatsApp.

Farhad Hazrati, who used to be the coach of Afghanistan’s women’s judo team before the Taliban regime disbanded it in 2021, picks up the phone and smiles at the on-screen display which shows three women earnestly watching the session.

They are part of a secretly held training session in Afghanistan, where women hiding in walled compounds are still learning from their agile, conscientious coach who is now a world away.

Since returning to power in August 2021, Taliban authorities have stopped girls and women in Afghanistan from attending high school or university, banned them from parks, gyms and public baths, and prohibited sports for female athletes.

Although most members of the former national women’s judo team quit after that, some, in defiance of the draconian laws, still gather at private locations to train with Hazrati from afar.

Those who do make sure to stay away from windows and stick to groups no larger than six so as not to raise suspicion.

One woman who has trained for 15 years says she still dreams of becoming a world champion one day.

“Different girls who train like this have different motivations. Some train to improve their mental health, others to form friendships with other women,” she says on the WhatsApp group call.

“Every day, the Taliban restrict more and more for women. It makes it very hard to achieve our goals,” she says, exasperated.

“I think all Afghan women feel it is very hard. Many cried the first time they were not allowed into their school. It was a hard day for them. It is hard to live with no future.”

Despite the dangers, she says judo training helps her to retain a sense of independence and control of her future; “Every time there is a training, I feel there is some hope”.

Escape from Kabul

Khalili, one of Afghanistan’s most promising judo athletes, arrived in Norway just over half a year ago.

She had fled her home country after the Taliban took over Kabul amid the withdrawal of US forces in August 2021.

A public face for the women’s judo team, Khalili had caught the Taliban’s attention, and they sent six armed men to her house just days after taking control.

Fortunately, her father was able to convince them that she was not at home. After they left, she immediately collected her belongings and, covering her face with a niqab so as not to be recognised, fled in the dark of night.

She ended up in a knee-deep canal between Kabul airport’s exterior wall as she tried to draw the attention of the international soldiers guarding the perimeter.

Exhausted and dispirited, she gave up after three days.

As she turned away from the chaotic scenes, a man blew himself up near the airport gate. She still vividly remembers bodies flying through the air.

Eventually, Khalili made it to neighbouring Uzbekistan via a safe house organised by the Norwegian Judo Federation, where she was treated for an infection she suspects she contracted from standing in the dirty water.

In Tashkent, she met up with Hazrati, who had also made it across the border with a clandestine support network linked to the international judo community.

In the bustling Central Asian capital, Khalili and Hazrati planned to move to Norway to meet up with their former instructors, who were eagerly helping to process their asylum cases.

They would spend seven months in Tashkent and eight in Istanbul, Turkey.

In each city, they were welcomed into the well-established judo community with open arms.

The two judo aficionados have been in Norway since December 2022.

Khalili has just moved into a new unfurnished apartment provided by the Norwegian government, and spends her days vigorously training as she looks to rebuild her strength after a long and arduous ordeal.

She is excited to have moved into the apartment, but appears upset when asked if she often thinks about the circumstances her old teammates in Afghanistan still face.

“Of course… all the time, it’s a terrible situation for them,” she says, shaking her head.

‘When you wash your judo clothes, you wash them for your partner’

Hazrati, who now lives in a refugee centre north of Oslo, is thankful to the judo community for helping Khalili and himself.

Over a veritable feast of Afghan food prepared by Khalili at her apartment, he pulls out his phone to show a grainy photo of several heavyset men in combat gear bearing automatic rifles and standing in a gym in Kabul.

The photo was surreptitiously taken by his friend, who told him they were a group of Taliban fighters who had come looking for him.

Judo has not only helped him and Khalili find the mental and physical strength to recover from their ordeal; it has also allowed them to make friends in their new home.

“I don’t speak Norwegian yet, but when I am at the training, we all understand the language of judo,” he says.

The martial art, which originated in Japan and means ‘gentle way’ “teaches you to respect your opponent,” Hazrati says earnestly, adding that it breaks down barriers between people whose paths would not usually cross.

“In judo, you can see doctors, engineers, shopkeepers and car mechanics all communicate on the same level,” he says.

“In the sport, we say when you wash your judo clothes, you wash them for your partner, not yourself. It’s about respecting others.”

This feeling allowed the two to confidently walk into any judo club in Tashkent, Istanbul and Oslo, however desperate they felt at the time.

“Judo really saved us,” he says firmly.

For now, both Khalili and Hazrati are slowly piecing their lives back together, as they navigate the long bureaucratic registration processes in Norway.

And for the Afghan coach, the lesson is to approach life with the same philosophy he was taught in judo. “If you will never be a champion, that is ok,” he says, “the main thing is that you are better than yesterday.”

Source : Al Jazeera