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Afghan women 'fighting for peace'

July 31, 2007 (BBC): The barked instructions and sounds of feet running round on a matted floor are like any team anywhere in the world warming up.

But this training session is unique.

The people running round to warm up before putting on their boxing gloves are women - and this is Afghanistan.

A new generation is challenging the usual stereotype of Afghan women as shadowy figures concealed from head to foot behind powder-blue burqas.

And the training is tough.

Occasionally the trainers, who run the national male boxing team as well, sprinkle water onto the floor to damp down the dust flying into the air as the women pace round, then warm up on punch-bags before squaring up in pairs against each other for training bouts.

Reclaiming space

The gym is in the football stadium, notorious in the Taliban years for frequent public executions, including of women.

But in agreeing to come to box these young women are doing more than exorcising the ghosts of a dark period in Afghan history.

The training is sponsored by a peace group who want to give women more self-respect, and reclaim boxing as a sport in a country scarred by conflict - making martial arts constructive and not destructive.

They call it "fighting for peace."

The boxers are in their late teens and these unlikely ambassadors for peace challenge pre-conceptions both about boxing and about women, particularly Afghan women.

Like most of them, Maleeha says she is there for recreation, but in halting English, she does understand the reason behind the project.

She says they are "fighting to end war."

A few want to take the sport further.

Women's boxing is not yet an Olympic sport, but if it becomes one, Shala hopes to be on the team.

She points out that the boxers come from all corners of Afghanistan, not divided by tribal loyalties that have split Afghanistan in the past.

More than just sport

"If you get involved in sport then you stay out of war.

In the past there was war between different peoples in Afghanistan, but a sport like boxing brings people together. It's not fighting. It's a competition."

Between training sessions the boxers sit down and discuss non-violent approaches to conflict resolution.

The NGO backing the project, Co-operation for Peace and Unity, is headed by Kanishka Nawabi.

He says they are teaching women to be confident and regain self-respect in a male-dominated society.

"Afghanistan has been through a very violent conflict, and sport was not excluded from this process. What we are trying to do is to promote peace for this group, as a role model for society.

"Yes they do boxing, but not for the sake of violence."