In a gym underneath a wedding hall in Kabul, Laila Hossaini shouts as she slams her fist into a punchbag at her final training session before heading to the Asian Games in South Korea.
For Hossaini, 28, the tournament will be the biggest of her career in taekwondo — a sport she took up as a young girl when advised by doctors to exercise to overcome chronic bronchitis.
She grew up in Iran after her family fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and they all returned after the austere Taliban government in Kabul was ousted in 2001.
Hossaini won a silver medal at the South Asian Games in 2010 and competed in other international events.
But Hossaini fears that progress made on women’s rights in Afghanistan over the last 13 years could be under threat, and that the limited freedoms that allowed her to pursue her love of taekwondo could again disappear.
“Of course, we have our concerns — not only me, but all the girls — after 2014, if the Taliban make a comeback,” she told AFP.
“The Taliban will not let us to do anything; the achievements that we made will be reversed, so we are all worried.”
The US-led combat mission in Afghanistan will end this year, and violence is worsening nationwide as foreign troops exit and Taliban insurgents launch fresh offensives against Afghan soldiers and police.
Despite the end of Taliban rule, women in ultra-conservative Muslim Afghanistan are often restricted to the house and are discouraged from playing sport — let alone practising martial arts like taekwondo.
The right to fight
“There were some objections by my uncle and aunt’s families, until I won my first championship medal and then they stopped objecting,” said Hossaini, dressed in white taekwondo robes and headscarf.
“My close family was always supportive and now I am engaged. My fiance is a kung-fu fighter and athlete, so his family doesn’t object.
“For females doing sport, our biggest concern is financial problems. The economy is very weak and we do not have a proper diet.
“Some families oppose their daughters becoming athletes because, if they are poor, they say that if our daughter exercises and she is not fed well, it will be bad for her.”
At the basement gym, five women — one wearing an all-enveloping black niqab — arrived and changed into their taekwondo kit. They jogged to warm up and then started strenuous training drills.
For Hossaini, physical exercise and the thrill of competition have been a release from the restrictions of everyday life in Kabul, and also from severe health problems.
“When we were living as refugees in Iran, I got bronchitis and it made me so ill that I could not walk, I was hospitalised,” she said.
“I was limping when I walked, then the doctor recommended me to exercise. After the consultation of my parents and brothers, they said taekwondo sport would be good for me.
“Now, I do not feel any pain from my earlier problems.”
Hossaini competed at the Asian Games in 2010 in China, but she admitted she will face stiff opposition in Incheon from Iran, China and the host nation.
“I am really pleased to visit Korea, to see their culture and traditions, and how they speak and how they dress,” she said.
“I have some knowledge about Korea through watching their movies, so now I want to see the real place itself.”
She will be one of 69 Afghan athletes in Incheon, including seven competing in taekwondo — the only sport in which the country has won Olympic medals.