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Afghan girls kick down old barriers

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From the corner of a Kabul basement, next door to a barber shop, come high-pitched and most unusual sounds. A small posse of Afghan girls shout "heey-ya!" as they practice karate jabs, kicks, and punches.

The eldest of the bunch, Nargas Rahimi, returned to her Afghan homeland last year after growing up in Iran. "I saw that Afghan women didn't have the faintest idea about exercise. So I came here to act as an example for Afghan girls and to help them take part in Afghan society," she says.

With the help of several new Kabul fitness clubs (with women-only hours) like the Khusal Khanmeena gym, Afghan girls and women are getting their first taste of sports. Girls' schools here are also introducing athletics, and the women's Olympic committee is now training some 1,500 Afghan girls to compete abroad. Last summer, for the first time in the nation's history, two women competed in the Olympics.

After years of being cloistered in their homes during Taliban times, women are now looking to private gyms and sports clubs as one of the few pathways opening up for women and girls trying to reemerge into a society that remains highly segregated - and dangerous. Two weeks ago, a woman was stoned to death for adultery.

"Sport can be used as a vehicle for creating a safe space, an entrance into the public sphere," says Martha Brady, a program associate with the Population Council in New York who has worked on bringing sports to girls in Egypt. In many countries, she says, "you can see an 8-year-old girl outside kicking a ball around. You don't see her when she's 13 because she's sequestered at home."

In Afghanistan - a nation where women are still seldom seen in public - there are few socially acceptable public places for women outside of schools or universities, and even fewer facilities for sports.

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