Before the sun painted the sky with its warm hues, the world lingered in the embrace of darkness. Zohal and I stood at the main road, the distance obscured in the pre-dawn shadows. The early morning breeze whispered against our faces, and the asphalt beneath our feet offered a comforting warmth. As we neared the awaiting rickshaw, its tired exterior, peeling paint, and the sun-faded mantra, “Everyone seeks a lover; we seek a rider,” welcomed us. The gymnasium, a mere ten-minute journey, awaited. Despite the brevity of the ride, Zohal couldn’t resist breaking the silence once we set the rickshaw in motion. “Saturn is the sixth planet in the solar system. After Jupiter, it’s the largest planet, adorned with beautiful rings that everyone dreams of having. My father has always explained this to me as a description of my name since childhood. That’s why I always tell myself I should be like Saturn—beautiful, big, and strong.”
Zohal was born into a family of athletes, and from her early days, she had a keen interest in and enthusiasm for sports. According to her, from the age of five, under her father’s supervision—a martial arts instructor who formally trained many disciples in the state gymnasium and his club—who has honed the skills of many and presented many students to the grand sports arenas. However, today, Zohal’s father, due to economic constraints and family needs, has abandoned sports and is working as a laborer in a neighboring country. Zohal herself was prohibited from participating in sports due to imposed restrictions by the Taliban.
In the brief moment that Zohal and I had to converse, she spoke with enthusiasm and great interest about the first time she participated in a major sports program: “I was twelve years old when, along with four of my same-age and healthy peers, as selected martial arts students of our province, I participated in a national-level program. It wasn’t a competitive program; rather, it was an exhibitive martial arts event. I still have the certificate of commendation I received from that program.”
At that moment, Zohal, as if freshly infused with lifeblood, took out her mobile phone from the small handbag hanging around her shoulder and opened the folder labeled “Before the War.” She opened the first photo and handed me the phone to scroll through the pictures. Although time was limited to view all the photos and hear Zohal’s explanations, what was visible in most of the pictures—a white Taekwondo uniform with its distinctive belt, medals hung proudly around her neck after victories, and smiles reflecting the joy of triumph—portrayed Zohal as more beautiful and happier than the one sitting in front of me.
Zohal’s words conclude with a hearty cough from the rickshaw, a subtle indication that we have reached our destination. We disembark beside the city’s state gymnasium. Zohal, being more familiar with the surroundings, guides me from a few steps away. She explains that the reason she chose this early hour for our visit is that during peak hours, approaching the building is challenging, and navigating through the road is nearly impossible. Until two years ago, the state gymnasium, with its parallel bars, limited sports equipment, and even the regular rows of benches for spectators, though not entirely standardized, still provided a suitable environment for the comfort and athletic exercises of girls.
Zohal gazes wistfully towards the gymnasium building, expressing, “Even though there was less time for girls’ training back then, it provided us with a limited yet boundless opportunity to strengthen and excel in our respective sports. To prepare ourselves for competitions, both national and international, by acquiring the necessary skills.”
In this state, Zohal gestures toward the men who, except for herself and me, are jogging on the two paths leading to the gymnasium, clad in specialized sports attire and indifferent to everything. Then, with a tinge of envy permeating her words, she says, “We could have done it too if they had allowed us.” The abrupt and sudden cessation of sports for Zohal and other girls engaged in professional athletics dealt a heavy blow to their spirits and lives, knocking them down to the ground. Subsequently, they struggled immensely to rise again, to stand on their feet.
A year after the imposition of restrictions by the Taliban, Zohal continued her training under her father’s supervision. However, following economic difficulties resulting from a decrease in her father’s disciples, Zohal’s father migrates to one of the neighboring countries to provide for his family, starting a new life as a laborer there. Zohal left without her father, the greatest supporter and guide in her exercises and coordination of sports competitions, goes through a prolonged period of despondency. Afterward, spurred on by her father’s distant encouragement, she resumes her morning workouts, hoping to one day witness herself in the Olympic arena in her chosen sport. She aspires to achieve honor for herself, her family, and a homeland that currently lacks the opportunity for sports, dreaming of a day when she can proudly represent them.