BY JESSICA WATTMAN
Mountain climbing in Afghanistan? An audacious idea for even the most adventurous among us. But that’s what a group of thirteen young Afghan women dedicated themselves to doing last year. They will be the first all-female group to scale Mt. Noshaq—at nearly 7,500 meters the highest peak in the country—but they certainly won’t be the last.
With the help of a new organization, Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics, young women in this war-torn country now have the chance to climb out of their traditional roles, push the boundaries of what they can do and define themselves in a new way.
The journey for these girls hasn’t been easy. Afghan society isn’t known for its openness to women in unconventional roles. Female role models are the exception rather than the rule. Ascend hopes to change that. Part of the organization’s mission is to help create a cadre of young female leaders that can reshape the country’s ideas of women and inspire generations of girls to think bigger and do more. This first group of thirteen represents the promise of what is possible for all women.
Taiba, age 19, explained, “I first joined the team because I wanted to be a mountaineer, but I learned much more. Because of Ascend, I am a person that stands on my own two feet and have lots of aims and goals in my life that I know I can do. The lessons I learned about unity with this team have helped me to be a good person for my society and to be a more social person.”
Maryam, the team’s youngest member at 15 years old, is passionate about sports and art. Encouraged by both her parents, she quickly became a standout for her athletic ability and her enthusiasm. In addition to rigorous weekly practices, she volunteers twice a week as an art teacher at a center for street children.
Yasamin and Aynura are sisters from a deeply conservative family; their father initially had reservations about allowing them to be on the team and dismissed their participation as a waste of time. But both girls learned fast and have excelled in the program. They now teach sewing to girls at an orphanage, and Aynura, who is illiterate, gets tutoring help from a teammate twice a week.
Basira, age 21, has a tumultuous home life as yet another daughter to a father who wanted boys (her name is derived from the Arabic for “enough”, as in, “enough girls”). She covers that sadness with a big personality and is always the girl who makes everyone laugh. Some early behavior problems on the team have faded, and she is finding her niche reading story books and maintaining the library at a center for street children.
So what does it take to become a female mountain climber in Afghanistan? Danika Gilbert, an expert guide and climbing instructor who spent one year training the Afghan team, says it takes gumption and grit. She talks about the girls’ efforts with deep respect and appreciation of what is required to attempt a climb of this magnitude in a country like Afghanistan.
Soraya, age 17, shared, “Being a mountaineer has had a lot of impact on me. Not only has my body gotten stronger; so has my mind. Sports have also improved my position in society. I know that I can do many things that girls were told they cannot.”
“I was doing taekwondo, but I never felt like I could speak about sports or what I was doing,” explained Basira, age 21. “I want women in Afghanistan to talk about these things: their strengths, their sports, and their power.”
The logistical challenges notwithstanding—poor infrastructure, lack of equipment, outbreaks of violence and fighting—many girls in Afghanistan live with a constant reminder that they are valued less than their brothers. A lifetime of this message results in chronic low self-esteem and an acute lack of confidence in their abilities to set and accomplish goals. More so than the physical training, Danika and the whole Ascend team have worked to help these girls develop the mental and emotional strength needed to succeed—both on the mountain and off.
And the results are astounding. Sohaila, age 20, suffers from a deep self-doubt, partly because of shame that she is illiterate, the result of a childhood as a refugee. But she blossomed as a climber. Now one of her new teammates tutors her twice a week in reading and writing. Her new confidence encouraged her to become a mentor to street children. Shopirai, age 21, nearly quit the program early on, because she rebelled at the disciplined environment of practices and climbing clinics. But she stepped up to the challenge of the team’s expedition in August 2015, and emerged as one of the top climbers. She’s now leading practices.
“Before, I was just a calm girl. I went to school and stayed home. That’s all I did. My confidence grew and it has encouraged me to do things for myself and for others. Now, I am active and in my university there is a committee on sports that I am on and I have been able to contribute my knowledge and skills,” stated Fouzia, age 23.
The future for Ascend and its work is promising. Interest in the program has skyrocketed as word gets out about the organization and what it’s offering. The girls who finished the first expedition have been visiting schools and talking about their experience and what they accomplished.
Climbing is not the only way they lead by example. Each has committed to work on a project whose purpose is to help their community. Activities range from teaching painting, taekwondo, and storytelling to street children, to helping in the kitchen at a women’s shelter. This first group of Ascend alumni will act as mentors to the next generation of girls who take up the challenge.
Fouzia continued, “Sports have made me stronger physically and mentally and let me know that I can do anything. Climbing mountains is difficult but not impossible. Now, I know that when something else is difficult, it’s not impossible. I believe women should be independent. In Afghanistan, we’re not really free; always the men are earning the money and women aren’t independent. I want us to be able to stand on our own two feet. First, I want to do this and then I want to help other women do the same thing.”
When asked if the girls have female sports role models, they named Afghan runner Tahmina Kohstani, boxer Laila Ali, and basketball player Ruqayya Loftin. Teammates Shopirai, age 21, and Raihana, age 17, aspire to be role models themselves. Raihana added, “Climbing makes me powerful and has a good effect on my mind. I have asthma, but doing sports has helped me to be healthy and breathe well.”
The experience of this first team of girls has been captured both on radio and film. U.S. National Public Radio’s International Correspondent, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, spent six weeks with the girls both before and during the climb. She documented many of their stories and curated a three-part series covering the experience. The recordings of her interviews and her coverage can be found on NPR. Additionally, this first year has also been captured by a film team from the cable television network HBO. The documentary is due out in 2016. The film crew spent countless hours with the girls and filmed their training, trials, tribulations and successes.
Currently, there are more applications for the next round of activities than can possibly be accepted and that poses a real challenge for Ascend’s founder, Marina LeGree. While she is keen on opening up these types of opportunities to as many young women as possible, she is also sensitive to the danger of challenging traditional beliefs too quickly or in the wrong way, or it could endanger the future of the program.
Ascend and its trainees will tackle these mountains like Mt. Noshaq, a little bit at a time.
About the Writer: Dr. Jessica Wattman is the Director of Social Innovation at New Markets Advisors and a Board Member at Ascend. She is a veteran at creating strategies for environments in rapid flux. Her work has been predominantly in the public and nonprofit sectors, where she has adopted Jobs to be Done and other innovation methodologies to create a wide range of trail-blazing programs in conflict and other unstable environments. She is co-author of the book Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer Centered Innovation, due out in the Fall 2016.
Her background includes time in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Zimbabwe, and other hotspots. She has worked for organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, Save the Children, Oxfam, the US Agency for International Develpment, and Mercy Corps.
Dr. Wattman is a magna cum laude graduate of Columbia University’s Barnard College. She also has a Master’s in Public Poicy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is fluent in Spanish and French.