Afghan sprinter Tahmina Kohistani shows what’s possible for Muslim women

LONDON — On your mark . . .

The petite woman in the Islamic headscarf nestled into the starting blocks, all 5-foot-3, 115 toned pounds of Tahmina Kohistani’s frame. She looked straight toward the finish line in the 100-meter preliminary heat on the first day of track and field at Olympic Stadium.

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Such a short distance, she thought. Just 100 more meters and it would all go away. The abuse: the men watching her train in Kabul, heckling her to go home, “to get behind the man” or the taxi driver who kicked her out of his cab when he found out she was training for the Olympics.

One more sprint of less than 15 seconds, this time in front of 60,000 people who boomed with applause as her name was called over the stadium’s loudspeaker, and Kohistani would complete the longest of journeys for the shortest of races.

“How is this possible?” someone had asked the only woman to represent Afghanistan in London.

Set …

For a moment before the starter’s gun went off, she thought hard on that.

How is this possible? How is someone from a war-ravaged country who trains in a dilapidated stadium, who can’t afford elite sprinter’s footwear allowed to be here, at the 2012 London Games?

How is a nation with remnants of radical Islamism, where a woman accused of adultery was shot to death by the Taliban an hour from the capital last month, able to produce an independent-thinking female athlete to compete against the world’s greatest sprinters?

When stars of their respective Olympics sports check their Facebook and Twitter accounts for messages of hope, encouragement or congratulations from fans and supporters back home and abroad, they usually feel instantly validated. Before it was removed, this was on Kohistani’s Facebook account Friday afternoon:

“You are shame to Muslim women. You don’t represent [them] you represent Tahmina.”

As much as she became a symbol of women’s empowerment — as much as Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia sending female athletes to the Olympics for the first time had finally made these a genuine gender-inclusive Games — Kohistani knew: change comes agonizingly slow in parts of the Muslim world.

That’s it, it’s over, she told herself months ago, when her coach had to fight men outside the stadium in Kabul who told her not to run, that she was a bad Muslim woman. “I decide I am going to go home and I will never come back because the people is not ready to respect me,” she said.

But the moment passed. And Kohistani realized: deep in that slight frame lived not only a sprinter, but also a fighter. “I will continue. Someone should respond this way. And someone should take these problems and I am the one who is ready for the problem.”

So she ran. And ran. Because no one could make her believe churning her legs as fast as she could possibly make them go was against Allah and the Muslim faith, which she remains so devoted to she refused to compete without the hijab, especially during the holy season of Ramadan.

On the day she qualified for the Olympic games, she began to cry underneath her red, black and green scarf, cry for every little girl who was told not to run by her parents in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. She cried because those girls would never know the joy of moving with the wind in the middle of a dead sprint.

Only one man’s opinion mattered to her, and after early reservations, Kohistani’s father told her simply: “Run. Run for Afghanistan. Run like you’ve never run before.”

Pop!

As the gun went off, she rose quickly from the starter’s blocks. Head down, arms and legs pumping in unison, then slowly rising, building speed. She felt like she was flying Friday morning. She crossed the finish line in 14.42 seconds, a personal best by almost a half-second — on a track that had no mud, no potholes like back home.

Almost four seconds behind the world record, she did not qualify for the next round and finished 31st out of 32 competitors.

As if that mattered.

“I’m going to say sorry for my family because I was racing for my medal and I cannot achieve any medal for them,” Kohistani said, her eyes welling up.

“You’re crying because you didn’t win?” she was asked.

“No,” she said. “It is the journey. Being here is more important for me than a gold medal.”

The Afghan sprinter now wept openly as she spoke, tears dotting her hijab. “It was one of my dreams to go to the Olympic Games. And right now I achieve my dream and my dream come true and I am very happy for that.”

“I’m here to represent a country with lots of problems right now,” she continued. “Right now we are facing the loss of children, the loss of family. There are bombs a lot in my country. The women in my country have lots of problems right now.”

Kohistani was letting go of everything, pouring it out. “There are a lot of bad comments about me in my country and there’s lots of people not ready to support me. But I think I will make the nation of Afghanistan proud of me and they are going to never forget me. I just opened a new window, a new door, for the next generation of my country. I can say that they will follow me all the time.

“There are lots of girls in Afghanistan. Because of some social problems, because of family problems, they cannot do sport. But I’m going to say for them: Come and join me, Tahmina, and we can make a very big and strong sport network in our country.”

She was asked if she faced any retribution for competing.

“Right now, when I go back home, there were will be a lot of problems, people who are waiting for me, people who will do things wrong with me.

“Maybe they have their own idea about me,” she said. “I’m not going to say they are wrong. Maybe one day they will realize that I was right. Maybe the next generation of Afghanistan will be proud of me because I opened a new window for them.

“They are not ready to accept me. They are thinking that I am wrong and I cannot do that because I am a Muslim and I am from Afghanistan and it’s not good for being a female athlete in my country.

“What I face, I face all the challenges, cross all the problems, and right now I am here.”

Here. The Olympics, where the longest journey to the shortest race ended with a 5-foot-3 woman showing more strength than the strongest Bulgarian weightlifter, more stamina than the gold-medal marathoner. Here, where Tahmina Kohistani’s tears kept coming, answering the question she pondered on the starting block.

How is this possible?

She just showed us.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise

 
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