Page last updated at 11:35 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 12:35 UK

Kung-Fu kicks off in Afghanistan

By Rustam Qobil
BBC Uzbek service

Kung fu training in Kabul
Kung fu fighting: 250 young women have been to this Kabul sports club to train

As Afghanistan is struggling for security ahead of presidential elections later this year, sport has become a way for an increasing number of youngsters to forget about the hardships of daily life.

Recent successes in cricket, the international homeless football tournament, and the country's first Olympic medal in Beijing, helped inspire many to explore both traditional and new sports.

Shahrinav Park in central Kabul is a world apart from the Afghan capital's noisy streets.

It's a quiet, leafy corner, where children are enjoying hours of cricket or football. "My favourite player is Ronaldino," says 13-year-old Muhammad Orif. His friend declares noisily that he is a Manchester United fan.

Sporting comeback

Sport has made a comeback in Afghanistan, where groups of football-crazy children or teenagers playing in almost every village.

Many of them are boys, but not all.

Pule Khush in eastern Kabul is a predominantly Shia district. Millions of Shia Hazaras fled to Iran during the years of conflict. Now the returnees are emerging as one the of the most progressive communities in the country.

In a narrow alley of mud-brick houses there is a sports club with a difference.

I want to be a champion
10-year-old Wajma

There is no sign outside, and inside the facilities are basic with low ceilings and a bare floor of hard packed earth.

There are only a few boxing gloves and pictures from past competitions on the walls.

Around 20 girls aged between 10 and 14 are going through their moves.

Clad in red uniforms including headscarves they are learning Kung Fu.

Their coach, Musakhan Jafari, a professional boxer, returned to Kabul to teach sports after living in Iran for 30 years as a refugee.

Winning gold

He began with groups of boys, but when girls started to come and train, he introduced separate sessions.

In just a few years over 250 girls joined.

"We teach the girls volleyball, basketball, taekwandoo, kick-boxing and Kung Fu," says Mr Jafari.

"Many of them are from poor families and we don't really charge them for lessons. Right now we need to encourage girls and their parents."

Kung fu girl in Kabul
Sport is making a comeback in Afghanistan

The club is strapped for cash, but that hasn't stopped the girls from doing well.

One of them recently brought back a gold medal from a regional Kung Fu competition in Iran.

Shazia is an assistant coach who was taught Kung Fu and kick-boxing by Musakhan Jafari when she was a little girl.

"I always dressed up as boy and learnt sports in his club back in Iran," she recalls. "Now I'm ready to help to run this girls' club in Kabul".

Daring to dream

She says that the worsening security situation in the country is one reason that drives young girls to take up the sport.

One of the girls agrees "The situation here in Kabul is not good. I come here three times a week and it's free. I don't want to be a champion or win trophies, I just want to defend myself."

But others dare to dream.

"I want to be a champion!" 10-year-old Wajma, one of the youngest girls here, says in clear English.

"It was my parents' idea. They said, Wajma speaks English, she is good at school and now it is time to learn martial arts too."

But not all girls can count on the support of their parents. Wajma says that many of her friends would like to join, but they are not allowed.

Instead they weave carpets after school.

For those who get involved in sports, the challenges are considerable.

The club has no financial support, although recently officials from the Afghan Olympic committee visited Pule Khush to see the work being done there.

On the big day, girls from as young as five showed off their kick-boxing skills in front of an audience of sports officials, women's activists and their families.

By the end, everyone was amazed, leaving Musakhan Jafari hopeful that more people will open up to the idea of women's sports in Afghanistan and that his club will eventually get recognition and support.

"They haven't promised us anything yet," he says, "but we are getting there. I'm sure we'll get recognition and help one day."

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