NEW DELHI – Though it happened several years ago, talking about her divorce still moves Hanifa, 23, to tears. It is not just the memories of the abuse her former husband inflicted on her, but also the social isolation that followed.
Married at 15 in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan, Hanifa managed to escape the violent marriage three years later. (She asked that her last name not be used, for fear of being harassed by her ex-husband.) “When I wanted to get divorced, everybody thought I was a bad girl,” she says, speaking over the phone from Kabul. “Nobody wanted to talk to me, I lost all my friends.”
Then, Hanifa found a new group of friends – in an unlikely place. What binds her to these young women is not talk of mothers-in-law and child-rearing, but of climbing mountains. She is a member of Ascend, an American NGO that is trying to empower young Afghan women by training them in mountaineering. In a country where women are traditionally barred even from appearing in public spaces without a male escort, putting together an all-female mountaineering expedition seems like a tall order. But, for Ascend founder Marina LeGree, there was no other option. “I love the outdoors, I grew up hiking and being free, and that is something I wanted to share with Afghan girls,” she says. “I wanted the girls to experience freedom.”
A former aid worker, LeGree had spent years in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She became disenchanted with the inefficiency of aid and decided she wanted to directly influence the lives of young women in the country. She launched Ascend in 2014, and in August 2015 the organization took its first team of women on an expedition in Panjshir province in northeastern Afghanistan. Within two weeks, the team had scaled several peaks in the region, some reaching over 16,500ft (5,029m).
Earlier this year, another group from Ascend returned to Panjshir, this time to explore a different valley. It was Hanifa’s first expedition. She had never climbed a mountain before, or even imagined doing so. “I felt like I was out of a prison,” she says. “I kept thinking how a lady who was always at home found this much strength.”
Hanifa was born in Kabul, but the political turmoil in Afghanistan in the early 1990s forced her family to flee to Quetta in Pakistan. They lived in Pakistan for 13 years before returning to their native village in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. When Hanifa and her sister were married off to a pair of brothers from the same region, she was prepared to settle into the life of an obedient housewife.
But like so many Afghan women, she soon became the target of abuse. Almost 90 percent of women in Afghanistan experience some kind of violence, according to Global Rights, a U.S.-based human rights organization, often at the hands of family members. Afghanistan was ranked 152nd among 155 countries in the Gender Inequality Index in 2014.
Even after she separated from her husband and went back to live with her parents, Hanifa barely ever set foot outside her house alone. It was the social exclusion and the crushing sense of being a burden that compelled her to join Ascend. She was attracted to the sisterhood that the program promoted – apart from her family, Hanifa had never really been part of a community.
But joining meant getting her parents’ approval. The first and foremost requirement to participate in the Ascend program is family support. LeGree says the idea of a women’s mountaineering team is often met with outright opposition and sometimes bemusement from family members. She remembers the father of two girls who wanted to join being particularly dismissive. “He said his daughters wanted to do it so badly, he wasn’t going to oppose it,” she says. “But he added, ‘I don’t know why you are wasting your time, they are just girls.’”
That’s exactly the attitude LeGree wants to challenge. The idea for Ascend grew out of her work in the Badakhshan province, where Afghanistan’s highest peak, Mt. Noshaq, is located. The original plan was simply to take an all-female expedition up the mountain. The symbolic value of Afghani women scaling the 24,580ft (7,491m) summit appealed to LeGree, but it was unlikely to make a lasting impact on the lives of the women. Ultimately, her plan took the form of a year-long training program that recruits women, trains them in mountaineering, develops leadership skills and organizes expeditions.
The girls, who are between 15 and 23 years old, have to commit a full year to the program. They undergo physical fitness training including everything from athletics to yoga. They also participate in seminars on empathy-building, self-esteem and trauma resilience. These are as important a part of the program as climbing mountains, LeGree says.
While mountain climbing takes strength and courage, trying to change long-held beliefs about what women can and can’t do comes with its own risks. On completing their latest expedition in Bamyan, the girls were invited by local government authorities to give a presentation to students at a boys’ school. Though the team had never done that before, speaking almost exclusively to girls until that point, they agreed. LeGree says they were viewed with suspicion and hostility from the start. Some of the boys demanded to know why girls were getting opportunities over them. As the girls were leaving, some of the students started pelting them with pebbles. Hanifa was one of the girls who was struck.
“It was a few pebbles, so it was no big deal,” says LeGree. “But the intent is there. [Boys] have the attitude that they can do whatever they want with the girls and get away with it.”
Undeterred, the young mountaineers now have their hearts set on conquering Mt. Noshaq in 2017, provided there is funding and the security situation in Afghanistan remains stable.
Hanifa says the experience of scaling mountains has been transformative. Ascend, she says, “held her hand and helped her stand up.” Most satisfying for her is that climbing with the organization has helped her gain the trust and support of her parents. “They are no longer pushing me to get married again,” she says.