On a snowy mountaintop to the west of Kabul, a group of Afghan girls practice the flowing movements of Wushu, a sport developed from ancient Chinese kung fu martial arts, stretching and bending and slashing the air with bright swords.
In a country where women’s sport is severely restricted, the Shaolin Wushu club in a part of Kabul that is home to the capital’s Hazara ethnic community, is a rare exception.
Sima Azimi, the 20-year-old leading the practice session, says Wushu teaches self-defense, but just as important, “it’s really effective for body and soul”.
She learned the sport in Iran, where she won a gold and bronze medal in competition, and she has been teaching in Kabul for about a year, encouraged by her father, with whom she trains at the club’s gym.
“I am working with Afghan girls to strengthen their abilities and I love to see Afghan girls improve the way other girls have improved in the world,” she said.
“My ambition is to see my students take part in international matches and win medals for their country.”
Martial arts of all kinds are popular in Afghanistan, but it is a notoriously hard country for women, and the girls of the Shaolin Wushu club face regular harassment and abuse in addition to the normal dangers of life in Kabul.
“The biggest challenge we faced is insecurity,” said 18-year-old Zahra Timori. “Most of the time, we can’t go to the club due to insecurity.”
Her friend Shakila Muradi said she hoped that sport could help create a more peaceful climate in Afghanistan in defiance of the daily reality the girls face.
“There are many people harassing us but we ignore them and follow our goals,” she said.
When possible, training goes on in a gym dominated by a poster of Hussain Sadiqi, a Hazara martial arts champion who fled to Australia in 1999 and later worked as a film stuntman.
So far, all the girls in the club are Hazara, a Persian-speaking, mainly Shi’ite group who have faced a series of attacks claimed by Islamic State militants over the past year.
Their generally more liberal social traditions give the girls more room to move outside the home and practice sports but Sima’s father, Rahmatullah Azimi says he hopes to see girls from other ethnic groups join in as well.
He said he worries about his daughter’s safety but said it was a joy to see her train other girls.
“I am really happy that I helped, encouraged and supported Sima,” he said.