Byline: Linda Robertson
ATHENS _ Robina Muqimyar ran 100 meters on Friday, a short distance unless you consider how far she has come. Just three years ago, she was not allowed to run at all. She was not allowed to go to school. She was not allowed to aspire to anything, much less the Olympics.
When she crossed the finish line in Athens, it was as if she was showing her countrywomen the way. By churning down the track, with bare arms and head, she was providing a powerful example of Afghanistan's potential.
Muqimyar finished second to last in her heat with a time of 14.14 seconds, the second slowest among the 63 entrants, and three seconds slower than the qualifying times of the fastest runners.
But her presence mattered more than her time. She was smiling proof that the damage done by the oppressive Taliban regime is being corrected. The burka, and the constraining anonymity it represented, is an awful but receding memory.
"I am really happy and proud," said Muqimyar, who wore a T-shirt and long green tights in her race. "I felt a little scared because all the world was watching me. But during the warm-ups the other athletes told me they understood the difficulties I have faced to get here and they encouraged me. In the stadium, I heard a lot of cheering _ "Robina! Robina!"_ and that made me feel good."
It was a symbolic day of victory for Muslim women. Danah Al Nasrallah of Kuwait became the first woman to run in the Olympics for her conservative country. She finished third to last overall in 13.92 _ a national record. Rakia Al Gassra of Bahrain, wearing a head scarf, long sleeves and pants was fifth in her heat and almost advanced to the quarterfinals. Alla Jassim of Iraq was 52nd, just six months after she began training every day she could when explosions in Baghdad didn't interfere.
Up in the stadium stands, coach Neema Suratgar couldn't stop crying tears of joy. She is the one most responsible for reviving women's sports in Afghanistan. Her own Olympic dreams were cut short by the Taliban, but she was able to see the next generation compete without fear of punishment.
"It was a great day for all Arab women around the world who deserve to claim their rights," said Suratgar, 33. "I wanted to be on that track, running fast, but 10 years have gone by and it's too late."
During the Taliban reign, Suratgar was forced to give up her job as a teacher. Her basketball and track teams were disbanded. She was not permitted to go out of the house without her husband by her side and without wearing the head-to-toe burka, which reduced her gait to a shuffle.
She felt like a prisoner as her body atrophied. She felt faceless and empty. To keep from going crazy, she used to walk up and down a hill near her home, when the bombing range adjacent to it was not in use. She walked up and down, up and down, the hem of her bhurka dragging in the dirt. It was her stealth workout, an act of defiance and survival.
"I could not run in the burka but I just had to go outside and get my legs going and breathe some fresh air," she said. "If someone stopped me I would say I was going to visit my grandmother's grave."
One time, when police didn't believe her story, she was put in jail for the day.
But Suratgar refused to let the Taliban defeat her. She conducted her own small rebellion, secretly assembling 30 girls at her house every day for math and reading lessons and a soccer game in the courtyard. Like the author of "Reading Lolita in Iran," she did what she could to keep the brains of her pupils from stagnating.
"It was risky," she said. "The Taliban came to our block and questioned my neighbors but they did not turn me in. It was a terrible time for us. It was not our culture."
Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. After the Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2002, Suratgar went into Kabul neighborhoods and schools and recruited 60 young women. They began basic training, and have met considerable resistance from men and women who do not approve of their independence or their outfits.
"The women did not even know how to run once they took off the burka," she said. "We started out just walking."
Muqimyar and 17-year-old Friba Razayee are two of Suratgar's proteges. Razayee, who lost in the first round of judo competition, was told when she took up the sport that no one would marry her. But she did it anyway, reveling in her strength and competitiveness.
"I don't do sport to be famous but because I was angry to hear that women are nothing and can do nothing," she said. "Some Afghans have old minds. I can show them through sport that they are wrong."
After her match, she called her father, who told her that what she had done "was like taking the first step on the moon," she said. "This is only the beginning. We hope the situation in our country will change and change."
The simple act of running, which we take for granted, was once forbidden and forgotten in the land of the burka. That's why Muqimyar raised her arms in triumph Friday. She wasn't second to last. She was free.
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