Climbing against repression: the Afghan women with high mountain dreams

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 07/10/2019
Hanifa Yousoufi on the summit of Afghanistan's highest peak. Photo: Sandro Gromen-Hayes

Like most Afghan women, Hanifa Yousoufi had never been for a run or kicked a ball. She had rarely been out of the house without a male family member. Last year this same woman became the first female Afghan to climb her country’s highest peak — Noshaq (7,492m). Hanifa and a fellow female boundary-pusher, Freshta Ibrahimi, were in the UK last week, speaking at a few events before heading north to taste the Scottish flavour of climbing. Sarah Stirling interviews.

The video call brings to life three faces I’ve seen in the news: a fair American woman called Marina LeGree and two Afghans; one wearing a headscarf - that's Hanifa - and the other is Freshta. When the women look at each other it is clear they have bonded over their common goal: getting Afghan women into the mountains.

A country ravaged by war and repressed by the Taliban, Afghanistan is one of the world’s worst places to be female. I've read that Hanifa was married to an older man at the age of 15. After years of misery, despite fearing shame and retribution, she fled back to her family and sank into depression. Many Afghan women aren't as lucky as her. Honour killings aren't uncommon.

Hanifa's expression is sometimes distant and haunted but this transforms into a peaceful smile when she talks about climbing. It is no exaggeration to say that this young woman's life was saved by mountains. Freshta, who had a different start in life, is much more open. Hanifa speaks little English; Freshta translates for her. The two Afghans laugh about the endless London rain. Like many other things, travel is quite new to these women.

Hanifa and Freshta are amongst a growing number of Afghan women whose lives have been turned around by a female-focussed organisation called Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics. Hanifa attended a program run by Ascend, and Freshta is employed by the organisation as Program Co-ordinator. I start by asking Marina how she came to found this non-profit.

Video call to Freshta (L) and Hanifa (R). Photo: Sarah Stirling

In 2005, Marina explains, she was in Washington studying for her first masters in International Affairs. As field work, she took a job with an international organisation, which sent her to Afghanistan for five months. “I absolutely loved it," she enthuses. "I was sent up to Badakhshan and it was early days there, there weren’t many foreigners, it wasn’t a militarised situation back then. It was just fabulous and I loved it so I stayed on.”

Over the years, though, Marina grew increasingly cynical about the way things were going with different governments and political efforts in Afghanistan. “I thought: I want to work with young people,” she tells me. “They are the ones who will make this whole thing different.”

Badakhshan, where Marina was based, is home to Afghanistan’s biggest mountains. Occasionally Marina would hear of foreigners coming to scale peaks and felt sad that few Afghans went hiking or climbing. A country with so much suffering; a brilliant resource for improving mental health - beautiful mountains. Yet these two things hadn't been connected.

"Young people will make this whole thing different”

And then, in 2009, two Afghan men made history by becoming the first to summit their country’s highest peak, Noshaq. When Marina saw that, something clicked. She thought: ‘Now let’s have the women do it.’” She started her non-profit in 2015. It offers women a program based around climbing, which is really about leadership. “Mountaineering is the hook,” she explains. “It symbolises to everybody what women are capable of.”

Ascend Athletics recruits around 20 women each January and puts them through a two-year program. Almost every day they do some work on five components, based around things that mountains teach us: leadership, service, physical fitness, psycho-social well-being and mountaineering skills.

A land of mountains. Photo: Brooke Warren

“It’s mostly individual donations that fund us, and a couple of family foundations," continues Marina. "It’s a lot of fun and a massive amount of work.” After years in Afghanistan, Marina now lives in Virginia where she is the mother of two boys. She travels to Afghanistan about four times a year and keeps in touch by video call when she is away.

Freeing women into the Afghan mountains

“My dream was originally fuzzy and it’s incredible that now she’s sitting right here,” says Marina. Hanifa smiles that peaceful smile, remembering that she fulfilled her dream: she was the first Afghan woman to reach the country's highest summit. But when I ask her to describe the Afghan mountains, she retreats, perhaps not wanting to share her haven. "I ask her for more words," says Freshta, "But she just says beautiful.”

And what do you think? I ask. “The Hindu Kush ends in Afghanistan,” says Freshta, smiling. She is eloquent yet humble and speaks English well. I wait to ask about her education. “As you go north in Afghanistan the mountains get higher and snowy and wild and scary. The valleys are very nice, you see the rivers, but when you go to the north you want to go to the summits, not just rock climbing and camping.”

"It is really unusual for Afghan women to do sport"

These women have come such a long way. A few years ago they had never been into the mountains. I ask about their past. “I don’t want to talk about my marriage,” Hanifa says. “But I’m originally from Ghazni and now live in Kabul. Life in Ghazni was hard. Women there are not allowed to go to school, they have to cover their whole face and body, and they cannot go outside the home without a male family member.”

Hanifa begins to open up a little, though, when she talks about the present and the future. Her life was transformed when she heard about the Ascend program, and her father agreed to let her attend the course. “It is really unusual for Afghan women to do sport,” she explains. “Ascend’s program was the first opportunity for women generally in Afghanistan.”

Women studying at Ascend Athletics. Photo: Daniel Wheeler

Having been raised in Kabul, the capital, Freshta had a slightly different experience: “In most rural provinces women don’t have access to education and aren’t allowed to work,” she says, “But in Kabul women have a little bit more freedom to go to school and to work.” Freshta was, it turns out, already something of a trailblazer for women when she came across Ascend. The first in her family to study to a high level, she attended the American University of Afghanistan, which is why she speaks English.

Freshta first came to the Ascend Athletics building looking for a career. She had seen a job advert online: “It caught my eye because it was just for women. Also I really wanted to be an athlete. In school I had been captain of the volleyball team. I really wanted to work and get money and support my family. My father is unable to work because of a car accident.”

“The first day that I went to Ascend,” she continues, “I saw a lot of mountaineering equipment and tables and a board and very soon athletes were coming in and they had athletic bodies and I thought: those are strong women! I had never been mountaineering, never been into the mountains.” 

High ambitions

And here the three women’s stories meet, and they begin working towards a goal: getting Afghan women on top of Afghanistan's highest peak. Hanifa was excited to be selected amongst the women who would try to summit Noshaq. Freshta would climb to base camp and help with logistics. However, the story then took a dramatic turn. Marina steps in to explain.

“Just before we set off for Noshaq, there was a serious Taliban attack near the mountain. Because the Taliban were controlling parts of the road, the only way to reach the base of the peak was by plane. However, no pilots wanted to fly to that region because there had been this big battle.” Undeterred, the team flew by by charter plane to a different airstrip, and endured a 13-hour, bone-shattering drive to the mountain on poor roads.

"The authorities didn't want the little ladies to go climbing"

“And then,” Marina continues, “At the base of the mountain, we had this argument with police officers. It was the standard stuff: the authorities didn’t want the little ladies to go climbing.” She rolls her eyes. "So the police were saying: 'You can’t go,' and we were waiting, and then Freshta said, 'We are going to go now, and you can shoot us, but we are going to go.'”

While the women had been sitting waiting, a growing number of local boys had been coming out of their houses and sitting inappropriately close to Hanifa. "That’s the sort of insidious thing these girls face every day," says Marina. "Any man can do or say whatever he wants and make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. They have very little protection from that apart from their own confidence.”

Partly due to the logistical issues, but partly also due to her determination to change the status quo, Hanifa was the only one to make the summit this time. She climbed as though demons drove her on. When she was sick due to altitude, she had to be forced to descend for a couple of days and to rest.

“Climbing Noshaq wasn't easy,” says Hanifa. “I wasn’t able to communicate to the foreigners on the mountain, the mountain was technical, steep, icy, cold, and I missed my friends. Sometimes I cried and I was really emotional.”

Lonely tents in the Afghan mountains. Photo: Sandro Gromen-Hayes

Changed by the mountains

I ask the two women how training and being in the mountains has changed them, and Hanifa responds with her longest answer yet: “I have become more confident, more social and I am the only woman in my family who travels without other family members. With the confidence I have found in myself I have learnt management skills and now I teach other girls at Ascend. I am one of three Program Assistants at Ascend: I lead rock climbing practices and look after the gear room.”

“Last year I went on a Conville Course in France," she continues. "I learnt a lot of skills which I am now teaching the girls on the program. I thought there would be a lot of hiking in France and was surprised that they were using chairlifts to go up and down!”

Freshta says: “I am more confident now. I know myself and who I am and what I want to do and what I see in my future is now more longterm. And I’m not shy any more. I always say to the girls in the team that I used to be very shy and now I am changed and have grown up a lot.”

"What about those who have beyond dreams beyond that? Like going to mountains, what about that? We don’t know.”

“When I go into the mountains I’m a totally different person,” she continues. “I become quiet but I have lots of fight in me. And in my mind I become wild and very much committed to what I want to do. I take stress and pain to the mountains and problems that I can’t solve. I have also become a more caring person through looking after the team.”

I ask how people in Afghanistan have responded to Hanifa since her ground-breaking climb: “I can’t talk about what I did publicly in Afghanistan. Many people would not like it.”

"What do your families think?" I ask. Freshta says her family are very proud of her: “I have proved myself to my family so they want me to keep growing every day, through sport and education. I am always thankful that they didn’t force me to get married.”

Hanifa says: “My older brother does not like what I am doing and says I should not be in the media and that my face should not be featured in photos. My parents are happy with what I have achieved but they are also a little bit worried because the Taliban mostly hide in the mountains and you don’t know when they are coming down and where they hide.”

“There were supposed to be peace talks with the Taliban,” she continues. “But there is no result with that so far. We were told that if we got peace with the Taliban then women could get an education but what about those who have dreams beyond that? Like going to mountains — what about that? We don’t know.”

Hanifa is happiest in the mountains. Photo: Daniel Wheeler

Warming to her topic, and opening up, Hanifa continues: “Because I experience freedom and a peaceful mind when I go to the mountains and go hiking or climb a peak I want other Afghan women to experience this. We women are told that we need to get married and raise children but women in Afghanistan need to get empowered and decide for themselves. My dream is that I will inspire Afghan women to stand up for their rights and be motivated.”

I tell her that she is a hero and she beams and says a word in English: “Thank you.”

The future for women and mountaineering in Afghanistan

In November, Ascend Athletics will put six women through a Single Pitch Instructor course. “It’s been sanctioned by the American Mountain Guide Association,” explains Marina, “And the assessment will be in spring. It’s an American qualification but we think there is reciprocity. We are trying to find that out. We are working towards the girls becoming leaders in the mountains.”

"The mountaineering industry is very small in Afghanistan," she continues. "You can hire local guides, but they aren’t trained, so our women would be the first to hold a qualification. We hope to build a mountaineering industry in Afghanistan with internationally recognised skills and safety and qualifications. Hanifa and Freshta are amongst those who want to do that. That’s the next dream."

Freshta and Hanifa at home in the mountains. Photo: Marina LeGree

More information

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A bit of a shame that this article didn’t link more to the Alpine Training course that 3 Afghan women, one of whom was Hanifa. The course was supported by the JCMT and delivered by Plas y Brenin and a British Mountain Guide. Would have expected the BMC to have known this.
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