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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Over the years, we've reported many stories about the plight of women in Afghanistan and the struggle to improve women's rights there. Today, a story about women fighting back, literally.

NPR's Ahmad Shafi has the story of some Afghan women who have taken to the boxing ring with Olympic dreams.

AHMAD SHAFI, BYLINE: Athletes are warming up in a dark training room in Kabul's Ghazi Stadium. They're Afghanistan's first female boxing squad getting ready to represent girl power in a conservative country where many consider women participating in any sport to be taboo.

But these young women have come a long way since the idea of setting up a female boxing team was conceived five years ago.

SABER SHARIFI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAFI: That is Saber Sharifi, one of the pioneers of female boxing in Afghanistan. He says it's been a long and difficult journey. In 2007, Sharifi started a recruiting campaign in girls' high schools. After three months of relentless speeches and presentations, he could only get a grand total of two girls to sign up, but he didn't give up.

Within two years, he had eight more on the team. After five years, he has 30 female trainees, but Coach Sharifi still needed to get the approval of their parents.

SHARIFI: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAFI: Sharifi says he promised the skeptical parents that he would personally take the girls in his own car to the gym and bring them back home safely three times a week. He also addressed one of the key concerns of many of the parents. I reassured them that their daughters will not have broken noses on their wedding day, he says with a smile.

It was not an easy decision for the parents. It was very difficult, says 19-year-old Shabnam Rahimi, the first Afghan female boxer to bring back a gold medal from a regional championship.

SHABNAM RAHIMI: (Through translator) My dad received death threats because of me two years ago. The threat was serious and I had to stop training for a whole month, but our coach came to my father and promised he would personally protect me. My father agreed and I started training again.

SHAFI: Despite all the risks, Afghanistan's female boxers say they are determined to fight for their rights inside and outside the ring. They say this sport has given them hope to chase their dreams.

Halima Sadat, a 16-year-old trainee, says she sees boxing as her first step toward fixing the ills of her community.

HALIMA SADAT: (Through translator) I hope to become a lawyer. I want to fight corruption and go after people who take bribes and who violate our rights. I want to make sure that powerful men don't get away with committing crimes.

SHAFI: The female fighters have few resources and limited space, but their high spirits and steely determination to improve women's status in this deeply conservative country is on display as they throw punches during this training session.

Only one of them has been selected to participate in this summer's games in London. She is Sadaf Rahimi and she is now training for the games in China. For the other young women still training in this dimly lit gym, Sadaf's participation in the London games is about more than competing for international glory. For them, she represents rising girl power in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Shafi, NPR News, Kabul.

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