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Afghan Women Climbers Face Challenges Beyond Scaling Summit


In Afghanistan, 13 women and girls are preparing for an unprecedented climb up their country's highest mountain. Over the past two months, they've become leaner, stronger and more committed to making the ascent. As we're about to hear, their determination has surprised an American mountain guide, who will lead the daunting expedition. And yet, there are serious cultural and emotional obstacles that could keep the young Afghans from reaching their goal. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kabul.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Many of the team members have lost at least 15 pounds or more since I last visited here, much of it in the sweltering Kabul gym. They run in bare feet along padded mats, ignoring the sweat soaking their headscarves and loose clothing that covers their limbs. Afghan tradition demanding modesty is something these athletes take seriously, even if their training defies other norms in a society where women are pressured to marry, have babies and largely stay out of sight.

DANIKA GILBERT: I don't spend a lot of time with very girly-girls, and outwardly they are.

NELSON: That's Danika Gilbert, a professional mountain guide who was training with the team on a recent afternoon.

GILBERT: And so that was great to see them in their workout outfits.

NELSON: The Colorado native has been hired by a Norfolk, Va.-based NGO called Ascend to lead the climbers up the nearly 25,000-foot mountain called Noshaq.

GILBERT: They had me go in the front to run and lead. And I kept picking up the pace a little bit and looking back to see, and they were right there. In the last lap, I sprinted as hard as I could, and they went with me. And that was what I needed to see, was that they were willing to do that sprint and that they didn't just drop off.

NELSON: Gilbert arrived in Kabul the first week in May, carrying more than 130 pounds of donated climbing clothes, shoes and other gear for the young climbers. The small mountain of gear represents a fraction of what they will need to reach the snow-covered summit. Most of the items are unavailable in war-torn Afghanistan, but the plan for these girls is about much more than reaching the peak, says Marina LeGree, who heads Ascend.

MARINA LEGREE: The point is really to instill confidence and unity and teamwork in young women who've never had that experience before.

NELSON: So LeGree added seminars to help the girls develop goals, speak in public and share their personal stories. The latter, which has the feel of a therapy session, is arguably the most difficult for the young women. On a recent morning, they sit cross-legged in front of a candle and stare at pictures they've drawn about their lives. Many refuse to talk about the trauma they've experienced in Afghanistan's wars or at the hands of relatives or strangers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Whenever one of them does open up, it often leads to tears and a hug from their teammates. Soon, more of the young women speak. One describes how her first name was derived from the Dari word for enough because her father was annoyed at having a daughter. Another describes receiving death threats and a forged picture depicting her and her father having sex because he backs her involvement in sports. Nargis Azaryun is Ascend's 21-year-old program coordinator.

NARGIS AZARYUN: Most of the people here, especially women, feel that it's completely normal if they're miserable. And they never speak about it because they feel like this is how it is. Like, there's nothing I can do about it.

NELSON: Fueling their insecurity is the intense sexual harassment women experience here on a regular basis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: This is what the girls hear outside the gym from guys hanging around. It makes LeGree worry for them.

LEGREE: I always feel the hostility towards me as a woman, and I hate it (laughter) but my reaction is anger, right? I'm not going to let anybody bother me, and I'm ready to fight. But their reaction is fear, which is actually much more appropriate, considering that they have to deal with this day in and day out.

NELSON: The harassment often leads to violence, as happened in Kabul last March when a mob brutally beat and killed a 27-year-old woman and then lit her body on fire. Azaryun says that attack shook the team to its core, all of which has Gilbert, the mountain guide, worried about whether these girls are emotionally strong enough to make the climb.

GILBERT: The level of trauma with this group is higher than I'm typically used to working with, and I definitely worry a little bit about keeping them emotionally safe. And the stress of a mountain and mountain climbing can crack people open, and I want to be really careful with these girls.

NELSON: So far, all of the young women say they will do what it takes, mentally and physically, to scale Mount Noshaq. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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