Thursday, May 24, 2018
Sports

Forced to flee the Taliban, a women's boxing coach fights for his dream

Mohammed Saber Sharif was born a fighter, so he's not used to sitting still. For now, he has no choice. He came to the United States nine months ago with some clothes and a pile of yellowed newspaper clippings, photos and mementos collected from four decades in boxing.

He left behind a wife and four children, a career as a boxing coach and a dream of helping women in Afghanistan aspire to something more than life as second-class citizens. After the fall of the Taliban, Sharif helped introduce dozens of Afghan women to boxing, eventually becoming the country's national boxing coach and leading one fighter to the brink of the Olympics.

"It's a society where 50 percent of the population plays no part except sitting at home. It was considered kind of crazy for a woman to fight," he said with a chuckle.

Sharif made international headlines for the audacious undertaking, lacing up mitts to challenge the traditional Afghan notions of femininity and womanhood. Sharif's fighters didn't have proper equipment, didn't have extensive training and didn't have much support. They had a coach, though, and at the time, a bit of hope.

Nearly a decade after Sharif started coaching young Afghan women, the successes are unclear, and the dangers feel as present as ever.

Sharif, 57, sleeps in the living room of a Leesburg, Va., apartment. He fled Kabul in January and has applied for asylum in the United States. He was once celebrated for his work with young Afghan women, but as the country unraveled and power shifted, Sharif became scared for his life.

"Because of these monsters who I do not even consider human, I had to leave," he said.

If he stayed, he was certain of his fate: "Death was waiting for me 100 percent," he said.

•••

Sharif grew up a renowned boxer in a country short on sports heroes. Fighting as a featherweight, he was a member of the Afghan national team from 1982-90. Sharif said he compiled an 80-3 record. Young, powerful and at the top of his game, he was slated to represent the country at the 1984 Olympics, but Afghanistan was among the countries that boycotted the Los Angeles Games.

"I can't explain the love," he said recently through an interpreter. "It captivated me to be in the ring. I just can't explain it."

Sharif began working as a coach with the national team in 1990. His eyes were opened, traveling to a tournament in China 15 years later where women were not only fighting, they were helping run the tournament. Sharif returned to Kabul with a dream.

"I knew this is an impossible task, but I love challenges," he said.

He slowly started building a team. He visited all-girls high schools and made his pitch to classrooms, offering gym time and instruction. The obstacles felt infinite. Even though U.S.-led forces helped overthrow the Taliban in 2001, the country still had to contend with a lingering aftertaste. Education was not valued for women, who were expected to stay at home, cook, raise children. They weren't supposed to be alone in the company of men and certainly weren't supposed to show bare skin in a boxing ring. Sports were considered not only pointless but also illegal.

"We want our women honored for being doctors or economists or mathematicians," Maulvi Qalamuddin, former head of the Taliban's religious police, told Time magazine in 2012. "Not athletes. ... Boxing is against Sharia, and women competing is against Sharia. So it is illegal for an Afghan woman to go to the Olympics for boxing."

Slowly, Sharif found 20 girls who were interested and families who approved. They trained for two years in a dusty, rundown room in one corner of Ghazi Stadium. They didn't even have a ring and used donated equipment, learning the basics of the sport. By 2009, Sharif began scouting international tournaments. By and large, even his best pupils struggled when pitted against more experienced foes.

Though the government didn't necessarily help with funding or equipment, he said it was mostly supportive during this period. He ultimately earned a promotion to secretary general for the Afghan Boxing Federation. It's a lofty title that earned him all of $20 each month.

"My objective wasn't money," he said. "It was to show the youngsters of Afghanistan there's an alternative to the war, to drugs, to terrorism and to misery. If you have power, prove it in other ways."

•••

The team became a media sensation of sorts, symbolizing what Afghanistan sought to become following the fall of the Taliban. Sharif and his fighters appeared in news reports across the world, and a Canadian documentary crew started following them. The end result was called Boxing Girls of Kabul. It opens as a film of hope, a country and a way of life that was at a crossroads.

"I hate those people who think girls can't achieve anything," one of Sharif's young boxers said, "that girls are meant to work at home. They will understand afterwards, when a girl becomes a champion, champion of the whole world, an Afghan girl. Then they will understand the value of girls."

But Sharif and his fighters could never really escape the past. They trained at a stadium that had once served as an execution grounds. Most sporting activities were halted during the Taliban's rule and women were barred entirely from competing. Ghazi Stadium became a public venue for carrying out capital punishment. One famous video snippet from 1999 shows a woman in a sky-blue burka who's shot in the head, while men, women and children look on from the stands.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2011, sports began to flourish again, and though they still faced plenty of pressure and judgment, women took up cycling, soccer and cricket.

The International Olympic Committee had barred Afghanistan from the 2000 Olympics because of the Taliban's treatment of women, and only a dozen years later, one of Sharif's fighters had actually been invited to box at the London Olympics. (She did not end up competing when international boxing officials ruled at the last minute that she wasn't skilled enough.)

For Sharif's program, that was the peak. The months and years that followed saw decreased military presence around Kabul. Dangers and the Taliban's influence began creeping back into daily life.

His fighters found it harder and harder to make it training, and whispers grew louder. Sharif was stopped on the street and threatened, instructed to stop his work immediately. Last summer, he arrived at his team's training room and was handed a government memo. It said authorities had received credible threats that the stadium would be targeted for an attack.

"All respectable federations should suspend training sessions for (their) female athletes until further notice," it read.

Because his program had received so much media attention, he became a public face for what some Afghans felt was a growing problem. Messages and emails requesting comment from members of Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee were not returned. News reports out of Kabul over the past year have shown that the nation's other programs, particularly cycling and soccer, have similarly struggled to remain afloat.

Sharif becomes especially animated when he talks about the resistance he faced and the helplessness that consumed him last year.

"What I was doing was absolutely against what they were doing," Sharif said. "They don't allow women to even leave the house with a burka, and I would take girls with short sleeves and shorts and actually train them. If they catch me, what do you think they would do to me?"

•••

Sharif counts 35 international trips he made as a fighter and a coach. On one of his first trips, in 1982 when the nation was mired in communism and uncertainty, he had an offer to abscond. He refused. "Kabul is my home," he says.

Late last year, he visited the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He explained his situation, the work he had done, the danger that he felt shadowed him through every day. He was granted a visitor's visa and arrived in Virginia in January.

He left behind a scared wife and four children, ages 11 to 18, but felt he had no choice. "It was the only option," he said.

Sharif hopes he'll be granted asylum and he can begin the process for his family to join him in the United States soon. While he waits for that, he's not yet allowed to work. He's living in Leesburg with his daughter and son-in-law, who came to the United States on a special immigrant visa after serving as an interpreter for U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Sharif talks on the phone with his wife and children daily. He waits patiently each afternoon for his Leesburg family to return home and daydreams about someday coaching again, not quite ready to stop fighting.

"Like some people are addicted to cigarettes," he said, "I'm addicted to boxing."

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