Skiing in a burqua in Afghanistan...

by AFP/Emmanuel Duparcq, Apr 5, 2011 | Destinations: Afghanistan

Khoshkak, Afghanistan - Villagers in a tiny mountain hamlet in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley saw a remarkable thing recently -- a group of women putting on skis.

The men and children of Khoshak, tucked at the snow-covered foot of the Koh-e-Baba peaks, could hardly tear their eyes off the 10 women in headscarves and long coats laughing as they wrestled with their poles and bindings.

Here most women won't even leave the house without a full veil covering their faces.

"Women skiing? I'm against it if they do it without the burqa," declared Afzal, as he fingered his prayer beads, clearly unconvinced by what he called this "Western thing".

Nando Rollando, an Italian instructor charged by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) with running the first skiing lessons the area has ever seen, expected this kind of resistance.

He had no trouble finding a dozen or so local boys keen to tackle the slopes, but when he suggested doing a special lesson for women with the local UN mission, he was met with reluctance, even among his colleagues.

"One of them told me he would send his son to ski but not his daughter. That dampened my enthusiasm," he said.

One of his best pupils from Khoshak, 13-year-old Said Shah, watched the women skiing from behind his flashy sunglasses.
But while he was happy to show off his fake designer shades on the slopes, he was clear that the women should dress more demurely.

"If women are interested (in skiing) they have to put hijab (burqa) or at least to cover their face," he said.

More than half of the women in the rural parts of this province -- regarded as among the country's least conservative -- wear the burqa, according to a UN official, but in the capital Bamiyan the figure drops to just over 20 percent.

The women learning to ski are the polar opposite of the rural women in blue burqas. Aged in their 20s and 30s, they are students or work in town and come from progressive families, according to the AKF.

On the slopes with Rollando, they fight through their apprehension and are soon shouting and laughing as they fall about on the snow.

"It's the first time I do something for myself," one said. Another said it had given her the chance to "discover herself".

For 28-year-old Zahra, the rough and tumble of the sport -- she fell over and hurt her back -- didn't stop her enjoying herself.
"It is very difficult to control skis, but very exciting," she said.

Naz Dana, a timid 16-year-old in a golden yellow headscarf has had to put up with snide remarks about women skiing -- from women as well as men -- but she was clear that she thought the veil was both impractical and unnecessary.

"With a burqa, it would be impossible to see the piste," she said.

"Skiing can be done without a burqa and in accordance to Islamic regulations."

On the heights of Bamiyan, mullah Said Nasrullah Waezi agreed.
"If the woman is properly covered from toe to head, with a scarf, she does not need the burqa that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda want," he said.

"It is good if the coach is a woman, or a man who keeps his distance."

It's a compromise that volleyball, the most popular sport among young women in Bamiyan, has yet to find -- without a gym where they can play away from the gaze of men, the town has no team.

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