The man who defied the Taliban to run an illegal boxing school for girls

In the vein of Reading Lolita in Tehran, this incredible story: Mohammed Saber Sharif, boxing coach, introduced Afghani women to the sport following the fall of the Taliban, before ultimately fleeing the country with nothing more than a bag of clothes and stash of newspaper clippings.

“It’s a society where 50 percent of the population plays no part except sitting at home. It was considered kind of crazy for a woman to fight,” Sharif told Rick Maese of the Washington Post. His “crazy” training produced one fighter who nearly made it into the Olympics.

Source: Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post

Unfortunately, as the country became increasingly unstable and the Taliban began clawing back control, Sharif’s rag-tag bunch of fighters came under increasing scrutiny as they bucked traditional notions of femininity and the role of women in a repressive society.

It got the point where he feared for his safety and fled the country. He now sleeps on a couch in a Leesburg, Virginia, apartment a world away from his family and his former students.

“Because of these monsters who I do not even consider human, I had to leave,” Sharif said. “Death was waiting for me 100 percent.”

Sharif was an excellent featherweight boxer in his youth. He would have competed for Afghanistan in the 1984 Olympics, but the country boycotted the competition.

“We want our women honored for being doctors or economists or mathematicians,” Maulvi Qalamuddin, former head of the Taliban’s religious police, said in 2012. “Not athletes. . . . Boxing is against Sharia, and women competing is against Sharia. So it is illegal for an Afghan woman to go to the Olympics for boxing.”

This didn’t deter Sharif. He recruited at all-girls high schools and slowly began building a stable. He eventually assembled a group of 20 girls who, with their parent’s approval, started grinding it out in a dilapidated room at Ghazi Stadium, using donated equipment and without a proper ring to train in.

While Sharif’s team didn’t see results (his fighters struggled in international competition), they did gain massive notoriety, even appearing in a Canadian documentary called “Boxing Girls of Kabul.”

“I hate those people who think girls can’t achieve anything,” one of the boxers says in the documentary, “that girls are meant to work at home. They will understand afterwards, when a girl becomes a champion, champion of the whole world, an Afghan girl. Then they will understand the value of girls.”

The high-water mark of Sharif’s program came when a fighter was invited to the 2000 Olympics. Her invitation was rescinded, however, when officials determined she wasn’t good enough to compete.

The program waned thereafter under mounting pressure from the resurgent Taliban. He and his fighters were harassed and many were pressured into no longer attending. Gradually, his number of students dwindled.

After a 2015 notice revealed the training ground was being targeted for attack, Sharif went to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and begged for a visa to the United States. His wish was granted, but it’s not exactly a happy ending to the story.

He arrived in Virginia in January of 2016 and is seeking permanent asylum for his wife and four children, all of whom are back in Afghanistan.

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