[Editor’s Note: March is Women’s History Month! We’re highlighting stories of women moving the needle forward in trail running and ultrarunning. Our goal is to bring to light women who are progressing our sport in a variety of ways: in big business, in the community, and on the trail itself. Let’s celebrate!]
Fatima Ibrahimi has always loved to run, but she grew up in a place where running for women is not only not accepted by society, but is also dangerous — Afghanistan.
Fatima was evacuated from the capital of Kabul in August of 2021, following the pullout of American troops from the country. Thousands of Afghans who were deemed at risk were evacuated: activists, those working in civil society and for international organizations, and like Fatima, women advocating for female participation in sport, something explicitly forbidden by the Taliban.
Fatima was born in Iran in 1991, another country where it’s notoriously difficult for women to publicly participate in sports. In 2003, her family moved to Afghanistan, and despite the conservative nature of the country, she said her family had always been supportive of her endeavors.
“I’ve always loved to run, I’d rather be doing that than anything else,” said Fatima. “Even as a kid, I was running everywhere. Run to class, run home, run in between, I just loved it.”
Thanks to her family and husband’s support and Fatima’s tenacity, she was able to compete in the 400-meter run as a part of the Afghanistan national team from 2014 to 2016, competing at international events for her country.
She left the team in 2016 when she discovered Free to Run, a nonprofit focused on using adventure sports to develop female leaders in regions of conflict. In her home province of Daykundi in Afghanistan, in the center of the country about eight hours from the capital of Kabul, Fatima worked as a Community Development Leader, helping groups of young women in developing life and communication skills, as well as how to be a leader within their own communities, using the love of running as the glue to tie them all together.
“This program had a big positive effect on the girls. It gave them skills to succeed and self-confidence,” described Fatima. The girls first go through the Community Development Leader program, and then have the ability to lead those actual groups — and some, like Fatima, moved into leadership positions in the organization. She was appointed Program Officer, an even bigger leadership position and responsibility.
But throughout the summer of 2021, the Taliban moved closer and closer to Kabul, taking over regions of the country with terrifying speed. It was a significant step backward for women’s rights. The Taliban, which was previously in control of most of the country from 1996 to 2001, was notorious for its oppression of women, denying them schooling, participation in the workforce, and enforcing a strict dress code — one that definitely did not include running attire. Afghans throughout the country, fearing reprisals for themselves and their families, fled to the capital to be evacuated.
Fatima and other members of Free to Run were able to get out on August 24, 2021, thanks to a massive evacuation effort. She went from Abu Dhabi to Albania for temporary placement, where she awaited her application for permanent settlement.
There, she continued to run, participating in a 10-kilometer race in the Albanian capital of Tirana. Eventually, her settlement application was accepted, and she moved to Thunder Bay, Canada, a city along the shores of Lake Superior that is frigid in the winter.
“It can get very cold here in the winter, so I am not running at the moment. I will when it gets warmer. Right now, I am working on getting my work permit, so I can get a job closer to my job in administration and finance. It is a totally new way of life here,” said Fatima.
While the future of Free to Run in Afghanistan is currently unclear, they are committed to finding ways to continue to work in the country, as well as support their Community Development Leaders and alumni who have been evacuated from the country, said Executive Director Taylor Smith.
“Afghanistan is where Free to Run started, and we remain committed to finding ways to continue in some shape or form when it feels safe enough to do so … We [also] have programs in Erbil, Iraq and are setting up programs in Dohuk, Iraq next month,” said Smith of Free to Run’s ongoing work in regions of conflict.
Despite all she has been through, Fatima is not deterred from her mission of getting more girls in places like Afghanistan into running.
“Girls should follow their dreams. It shouldn’t be a problem. Girls are brave, and we should be able to play sports in the field, in the street, without harassment. Even with that they should build up their confidence and follow their dreams,” she said.
Call for Comments
- Want to support women and girls like Fatima in conflict areas around the world? Check out Free to Run.
- Leave a comment to share how you’ve seen running empower women in unique ways.