- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan

On a recent morning at the Iron Men gym, it was the Afghan women who did the heavy lifting. A crowd of beefy men looked on as a dozen female competitors in red tracksuits and floral head scarves bench-pressed, dead-lifted and arm-wrestled for respect in this war-torn country’s first women’s powerlifting contest.

These days, homemade billboards of one-time Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger are a fixture in Kabul, where more than 190 gyms are thriving. But in this deeply conservative Islamic society, women had stayed at the margins of the male-dominated muscle craze.

No longer.

“I can normally lift 60 kilos, but today it was harder with all the attention,” said Kobra Dastagerzada, 36, a mother of four who took first place in the bench press. “The next competition, I will do even better.”

Shyness at the start of the event quickly waned. A couple of rivalries turned up, as well as some hard stares.

Nadia Sadeghi, a 17-year-old soccer enthusiast, won the top overall honors despite being many pounds lighter than many of the competitors.

Asked whether she expected more young women would embrace the sport, she coolly replied: “Why not?”

Organizer Bawar Khan Hotak, the de facto ambassador of Afghan bodybuilding, opened his first gym under the strict Taliban regime, which once imprisoned him for wearing shorts. Flat broke, he and a few friends fashioned weight machines out of derelict Soviet tank parts.

Kabul now hosts annual Mr. Kabul and Mr. Afghanistan contests to packed houses. Muscle-bound men come from as far as Helmand and Kandahar provinces - hotbeds of the insurgency - to compete, sporting fake tans and waxed chests.

Winners have traveled to Korea and Singapore to compete in Asian championships.

While women’s bodybuilding is out of the question, it was just a matter of time before they started weightlifting, said Mr. Hotak, who hopes to hold another contest in two months.

“The Afghan woman is strong,” he said. “We are not showing the body. We are showing the power.”

With a war welling in the provinces, government funding for sports development is minimal. Mr. Hotak and some of his friends said they paid out of pocket to host the women’s contest, which included uniforms for all competitors and golden trophies for winners.

The shortage of resources, though, has not stopped Afghan athletes from standing out.

Rohullah Nikpai won the country’s first Olympic medal, a bronze in taekwondo, at the Beijing games. The country’s previous best finish was a fifth place in wrestling in 1964.

Last week, he returned home to a hero’s welcome with more than 4,000 people cheering in the streets - and bonuses: $20,000 from a leading mobile phone company, $10,000 from the national Olympic Committee, and a new house from President Hamid Karzai.

The vice president of the committee, Sayed Mahmood Dasthi, seated in the front row at the women’s contest, said the government wants to use the momentum to expand support women athletes.

“This is just the beginning,” he said.

Not satisfied, Mr. Hotak wants to reach beyond the limits of Kabul to find the strongest Afghanistan has to offer.

Mashda Kamel, one of his weightlifting proteges, agreed.

“Our most powerful women are in the villages,” said the 20-year-old, a trophy cradled in her arm. “But we have war now, and it is difficult to visit them.”

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