The Ascent Of Afghan Women Afghanistan is a mountainous land where mountain climbing is rare among men and virtually nonexistent among women. An American is now preparing young Afghan women to scale the country's highest peak.
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The Ascent Of Afghan Women

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The Ascent Of Afghan Women

The Ascent Of Afghan Women

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Despite a lingering war, Afghan cities have never looked more modern. There're glass office buildings and malls. But for Afghan women, the modernization is largely a facade. As international tension wanes, many Afghan women fear they'll once again be forced out of sight and mind like they were during Taliban times. But those fears have bolstered the resolve of a group of young Afghan women who want to scale the country's highest mountain. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson brings us the first of several reports on the girls' struggle to redefine the role of Afghan women. And just a warning - this story contains some graphic content that might not be appropriate for everyone.

SORAYA SARHADI NELSON, BYLINE: Afghan women didn't dare venture into Kabul's main stadium during Taliban times. When they did, it was for something like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

NELSON: This video from 1999 shows the public execution of a burqa-clad prisoner who was shot repeatedly in the back of her head. Such images haunt Nargis Azaryun, who was living in Kabul at the time. Now 22, Azaryun says she thinks of the people who died here whenever she enters the stadium.

NARGIS AZARYUN: This was a scary place. And people weren't very happy about this place. And now, everybody comes here with joy.

NELSON: The raven-haired college student is one of a dozen budding women mountain climbers who train here almost daily. It's an odd sight in this conservative country, where Azaryun already rattles norms by driving and refusing to wear a headscarf.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

AZARYUN: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: On a recent afternoon, a male coach helps Azaryun and her teammates tie a frayed climbing rope to a billboard of President Ashraf Ghani that overlooks the stadium. Then they repel down the stadium walls. They look hesitant but improve with practice, which is something Marina LeGree wants them to do more of. She's 36 and started a Norfolk, Va.-based nonprofit organization called Ascend, which is funding the girls' training and upcoming expedition to the 25,000-foot-high Mt. Noshaq. LeGree says she realizes her small project won't upend traditional gender roles. But she hopes it will create heroines who inspire women here to break barriers. LeGree says the idea for this project came to her when she heard about Europeans training Afghan men to be mountain climbers.

MARINA LEGREE: So it was like, bing (laughter). Why don't we have a women's team?

NELSON: She hired the son of an old Afghan colleague and Azaryun to find the candidates and run her program on the ground. Ascend has struggled to find girls who reflect Afghanistan's diverse ethnic makeup and whose families will allow them to train at the co-ed stadium, let alone travel to another province to climb a mountain. A breakthrough came when Ascend teamed up with Sediqa Mayar Nooristani. She's an Afghan college student who learned to climb when she was 14. Nooristani enlisted four of her cousins and a handful of other girls to become Afghanistan's first official women's mountaineering team, which she heads. Ascend also recruited a half-dozen members of the women's national Taekwondo team.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIMBING PRACTICE)

NELSON: The group has trained since late fall in a run-down gym with no equipment. They sprint and do sit-ups in poor-quality tracksuits and sneakers. Their condition highlights another of LeGree's challenges - getting the women proper clothing and gear for the climb. Take their climbing rope, for example - it's a 9-year-old hand-me-down from the Afghan men's climbing team. The girls are using it to hang off the stadium walls on a recent afternoon. LeGree looks at them in alarm.

LEGREE: Yeah, this is not good. But we're still struggling with how do we account for the things that we bring and keep everything safe because it's expensive? So anything we bring is going to be highly valued. And we just need to keep tabs on it.

NELSON: That's because preventing fraud is difficult in Afghanistan. Ascend operations manager Faisal Naziry explains.

FAISAL NAZIRY: They think that when an expat is involved in a project, they may have lots of money. Then the money become their priority instead of focusing on project.

NELSON: He adds one person with influence over the mountaineering federation asked Naziry to give him half of any funds he was embezzling. That official refused to believe that an Afghan handling money for a foreign NGO wouldn't be cooking the books.

SEDIQA MAYAR NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Team leader Nooristani has her own concerns about Ascend, which she accuses of undermining her control of the team. But she and LeGree say they will make it work because both are determined to get the women up Mt. Noshaq. They hold weekly practice climbs, like this one up a steep mountain outside Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIMBING PRACTICE)

NELSON: Despite a snowstorm, they were able to summit. But conditions were too hairy to practice repelling, so they throw snowballs instead. The norm-busting team member Azaryun says she loves climbing mountains, even in horrible weather.

AZARYUN: There, you don't have to worry about what is the judgment and what are the perceptions among the society. You're just yourself.

NELSON: She and the other women hope to scale Mt. Noshaq later this year. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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