This October, I will be representing Afghanistan and Afghan women in the IRONMAN 70.3 Triathlon World Championship as the first Afghan woman ever to compete and finish the race. I'm raising $USD 15,000 to help Afghan girls in my homeland by supporting an all-female underground school and other Afghan women in need. It's my wish for more women and girls to follow in my footsteps and participate in sports at all levels; no matter what their religious or socio-economic backgrounds, where they're from, or their political circumstances.
When I compete in Utah this October, I will be the first Afghan woman to race the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in the face of the Taliban's restrictions that girls are not permitted to attend school past the age of 12 and women in public must wear a burqa at all times. I am taking a stand (well, a bike, a swim, and a run) and showing that my fellow countrywomen are capable of competing on an international stage. I compete despite the very real fears for family members’ safety back home. I aim to be a voice and advocate for the rights of Afghan women and girls, so that the world cannot turn its back on the oppression they are all facing.
My name is Zeinab. I am a girl from a poor minority ethnic group in Bamyan, central Afghanistan. I was raised in a very conservative province in western Afghanistan. Despite economic hardship and traditional cultural barriers and insecurity, I was lucky to have the opportunity to begin my education with the collapse of the first Taliban period and the arrival of the new government that allowed for both girls and boys to pursue an education. I remember attending class with girls much older than myself, as well as mothers. I spent 20 years learning and growing in a country I love. This was an opportunity those who came before me were not afforded. That opportunity may never exist for women in Afghanistan again if we do not create greater awareness, advocacy, and act now to support them.
In 2016, I started running to improve my physical and mental health with Free to Run, an NGO that empowers women and girls impacted by conflict through sport. For my passion and dedication to training, I was chosen to participate in an ultramarathon. I became the fourth Afghan female ultrarunner by completing a 250-km self-supported multi-stage ultra-marathon across the Gobi Desert.
Training for an ultra race was difficult, not just because of the distance involved, but also due to the lack of safe places for women to train in public. One of the safe places we secured was in part thanks to a group of volunteers on a foreign military base. They would bring us onto their compound so we could run safely. During these runs, I met an American woman and triathlete named Jackie Faye who was training to become the first woman to do six IRONMANs on six continents in a single calendar year. She was racing in order to fund and launch the nonprofit She Can Tri. Up until this point, I had never heard of triathlon or IRONMAN, but Jackie Faye introduced me to this world.
In January 2019, I was selected from a pool of athletes to compete on the first all-Afghan Female Triathlon team organized by She Can Tri. I trained for an entire year with minimal resources and in the face of many barriers. I was the only woman who completed at this international triathlon. When I crossed the finish line of IRONMAN 70.3 Dubai, I made history as the first woman from Afghan to do so.
Many Afghan girls heard my story and began following in my footsteps, fighting the taboos that stood against their dreams. They did so until last year when the Taliban took over my country once again. However, my story doesn't finish here. My next goal is to bring Afghan women into the spotlight and represent my country at the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship.
Throughout my life in Afghanistan, I have always tried to push beyond what is expected of a female with my background and culture. Today, I am a Fulbright Scholar, a runner, and the First Afghan woman to complete an Ironman Triathlon. It was not an easy journey to come this far, but not impossible with the support of this organization and mentorship. Now, it is the time for me to give back to my country, a place where women have become more vulnerable than ever before.
As I am telling my story and launching this campaign, there have been more than 300 days passed that girls in grades six to twelve have not been able to go to school. They've lost over one year of education they cannot get back. In the beginning, I wanted this campaign to provide more athletic opportunities for women in my country, but how is that possible when women and girls are banned from their basic rights to education? We must start here.
I'm currently training for the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in St. George, Utah, USA, on October 28-29th, 2022, while pursuing a full-time MBA at Colorado State University. I am grateful that as an Afghan woman I have these opportunities, while many others live with the fear of leaving their homes without their faces covered, accompanied by a male chaperone. My opportunity is not one that can be taken for granted.
I hope you will consider supporting me and my campaign, which supports the future of all Afghan women.