Robina Jalali chases dream for Afghan girls

Robina Jalali's dreams carried her all the way to becoming a two-time Olympic sprinter. Now she's determined to break down barriers for other young girls in Afghanistan. "I'm willing to sacrifice my life if it needs to be," she says. Kevin Frayer/AP

Robina Jalali’s dreams were much like the dreams of many other young girls. She wanted to go to school and learn. She wanted to be outside running around and playing sports with friends.

But Jalali grew up in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where girls were considered second-class citizens at best.

“They were threatening females that if you do any type of sport activity they will cut your nose off,” Jalali, now 25, recalled earlier this month through an interpreter. “They wouldn’t let any of us come out and issued warnings, 'If you do any kind of sport activity we’re going to kill you.' So we struggled, but I stood up against all that.”

Thankfully, her liberal-minded parents supported her dreams, and Jalali managed to rise above the oppression to follow her passion for athletics all the way to becoming a two-time Olympic sprinter.

These days, Jalali is a role model for young Afghan girls. She’s determined to keep breaking down barriers for her “sisters,” whether they want to pursue formerly prohibited sports or other previously denied interests. She was the lone woman in a “Coming to America” trip for an eight-member Afghanistan National Olympic Committee delegation that visited the United States earlier this month.

“The Taliban were playing with the heads of people -- they were killing people -- but now people are going back to doing sports activities,” she said. “Right now, it’s a different type of situation, and I’m here for my [Afghan] brothers and sisters. I’m willing to sacrifice my life if it needs to be.”

The trip, funded by the public diplomacy department of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, was designed as a look-see into how sports can -- and should -- be an essential, healthy and cultural part of society. It was the first step in further educating post-Taliban Afghan sports officials on the most effective ways to bring sports to their country.

Rear Adm. Hal Pittman, deputy chief of staff communication for the NATO International Security Assistance Force based in Afghanistan, was heavily involved in the planning of the Olympic Committee’s trip and accompanied the delegation to the United States. He believes the development of a youth sports culture in Afghanistan is key to the continued growth of the undeveloped nation.

“Why is the military involved with promoting Afghan sports?” he asked. “It’s real simple. We’re focused on sustainable, community-based youth sports as one of the visions of the future that provides an alternative to crime, drugs and youth-driven insurgency.”

The launching point for the fact-finding journey was the Amateur Athletic Union in Orlando, Fla., which was instrumental in facilitating the trip. The committee visited more than a dozen U.S. sports-oriented sites, including the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., the University of Central Florida’s athletic facilities, the largest YMCA in Central Florida, the multifaceted IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., and Miami-Dade County Recreation Department facilities.

“I very much like being here in America to be able to represent the youth of Afghanistan,” Jalali said at the AAU headquarters in Orlando. “We need to improve the situation so Afghan females can be self-sufficient. I don’t think there’s any sport Afghan women can’t do.”

After repressing the Afghan people from 1996 to the end of 2001, the Taliban was toppled when Jalali was 15. The doors started to crack open to offer girls more opportunities, and Jalali didn’t delay. In 2004, she became one of the first two women to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics. Wearing green track pants and a T-shirt, Jalali (then known as Robina Muqimyar) competed in the 100 meters and came in seventh of eight in her heat with a time of 14.14 seconds at the Athens Games.

For Jalali, winning wasn’t tied to medaling -- it was in being allowed to be a female representing Afghanistan on an international stage.

Friba Razayee, who had fled to Pakistan during the Taliban regime and pursued martial arts and boxing while there, was the other Afghan woman to compete in Athens. When she returned to Afghanistan in 2002, she began training in judo for the 2004 Olympics. She succumbed after 45 seconds to first-round opponent Cecilia Blanco of Spain.

“The girls and women of Afghanistan are starting to have a choice now,” Jalali said. “I was [one of the] first females to come out of this crowd to participate in the Olympic event and to show to the world and to the rest of Afghanistan what the female can do if they are given the opportunity.”

In Beijing in 2008, Jalali placed last among eight sprinters in her first-round heat with a time of 14.80. She wasn’t planning to compete in Beijing, but when runner Mehboba Ahdyar defected, seeking asylum in Norway, Jalali joined the Afghanistan team to ensure a female presence.

Wherever Jalali goes she goes with the knowledge that she’s setting an example for Afghan women to believe they can do whatever they set their hearts on doing. Being a part of the delegation that came to the U.S. -- others on hand included Lt. Gen. Muhammad Zahir Aghbar, the president of the Afghan National Olympic Committee, and Taimoor Eshaqzai, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of youth affairs -- serves to emphasize her chosen role to lead.

The Afghan Olympic Committee is pushing hard for the elevation of sports, believing it’s an ideal way to bridge the gap between people, which is crucial to peace and security in the country.

“The youth of Afghanistan is not just doing sports for fun; they’re also doing it for other purposes,” Aghbar said through an interpreter. “And one of the purposes is the unification of Afghanistan, because 30 years of war separated the nation so badly. Now we’re trying to bring back that unity.”

It is clear that attention is being paid to raising the profile of girls and women in the country. Eshaqzai, in particular, is known throughout Afghanistan for his interest in promoting sports and equality for females. The battle for civil rights for the female gender has made headway since the Taliban was overthrown, but all agree there’s a long way to go.

“Girls and women of Afghanistan have other social problems,” Eshaqzai said, speaking fluent English. “Unfortunately, it’s not always easy. You know, in the Islamic religion the girls can go to school, go outside, can walk around and do sports but, unfortunately, in the culture of Afghanistan it was not possible. But we are working in this area for the future of Afghanistan, and I am 100 percent sure with the support of the United States of America and the international global community it will bring a lot of change, especially in the situation of girls and sports.”

Afghan girls are becoming increasingly involved in sports from soccer to cricket, although they remain vigilant to Muslim custom by playing in track suits and head coverings. They also train and compete in a co-ed atmosphere in the martial arts -- taekwondo and judo are particularly popular. But as Eshaqzai admits, certain things are still not possible for girls, such as swimming in traditional bathing suit attire.

In an effort to heighten the role of women in Afghanistan, Jalali recently turned her attention to politics. She ran for Parliament in 2010 -- the seat she ran for was meant to be open, but then the disqualified person who occupied that seat was re-qualified, a situation that has provoked ongoing controversy.

“I was able to run for the Parliament to fight for the young males and females,” said Jalali, wearing an elegant wool business suit, a black scarf loosely draped around her head, and matching snakeskin shoes and purse. “That is a big achievement.”

But despite her change of focus, she isn’t ruling out competing in the 2012 London Games.

“Right now, I am representing the female of Afghanistan because someone has to do it,” she said. “I’m hoping that I will go to the London Olympics, but I promised the people of Afghanistan if for some reason I cannot do it, I will send another ‘sister’ and try to train her as much as I can. The important thing is for the figure of an Afghan female to be there.”

The recent “Coming to America” trip was just the initial step in a long-term commitment to develop sports for all youngsters in Afghanistan. Up next is a “Coming to Afghanistan” trip, where American partners, such as the AAU, will journey to the country early next year. The goal of that trip will be to assist in raising the level of professionalism in youth sports via development and implementation of programs.

“I am deeply interested in developing sports activities, especially for girls, because all girls of Afghanistan love sport,” Eshaqzai said. “All the youth of Afghanistan -- the boys and the girls -- can play a very strong role for the bringing of peace and security, and the integration of Afghanistan and sports is a good place to begin.”

And as Pittman points out, the courage and dedication of Jalali will certainly assist Afghan officials in their goals to continue to align Afghanistan's female population with the rest of the world’s 21st-century women.

“She certainly is a trailblazer,” Pittman said of Jalali. “She’s very aggressive and she’s really setting the pace for what women should be doing in Afghanistan.”