On the day she arrived in India to compete at the Women’s Boxing World Championships, Sadia Bromand posted a couplet from a song by Afghan singer Darya Aziz on her Instagram page.
“I will sing my song of freedom again and again and I will enter the field of struggle.”
The field of struggle Sadia speaks of doesn’t just refer to the onerous task she faces at the IBA Women’s Boxing World Championships in New Delhi. The 27-year-old has been drawn in the same bracket as world bronze medallist Manisha Moun of India and world silver medallist Liudmila Vorontseva of Russia. Meanwhile, Bromand will be making her debut at the world level.
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For Sadia though the struggle is also that of simply being a woman from Afghanistan chasing her dreams. “We are the girls of a land where to achieve our goals and success, we have to cross the seven black mountains. Maybe God wanted us to be the strongest women in the world,” she writes.
ALWAYS THE REBEL
Ever since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan a year and a half ago, women have steadily seen their rights vanish. Education for girls itself is hard and sports non existent. In such a scenario, even the simple fact of Sadia stepping into the ring wearing a jersey with the old Afghan flag is transgressive.
Sadia, who moved from Afghanistan to Germany three years ago, is a reminder of a different time, when much seemed possible for a woman who dared to dream. At various times, she’s been an international athlete, coach, poet and journalist. Her personality is summed up in a tattoo she’s got on her right forearm. Underneath the image of a lion are the words ‘Yes I can’.
She’s always been stepping out of roles she was expected to play. “I was always rebellious. When I was a young girl, I used to cycle to school. It was something that shocked a lot of people. Even my parents weren’t happy. They’d always tell me that they probably brought back the wrong baby from the hospital when I was born,” says Sadia who grew up in the Darulaman neighbourhood of Kabul.
She wouldn’t just be satisfied with cycling to school. She also looked forward to playing sports at the school which was part of the United Nations 1000 classrooms project in Kabul. She even featured in a documentary commissioned by the UN on the school program. “I am an athlete and I like to play basketball. I love sports,” she says in it.
ATHLETE, BOXER, JOURNALIST
Sadia started out as an athlete. With just a few women athletes in Afghanistan, she helped other athletes as well and travelled to the Rio Olympics as a coach. She competed at the same time, representing Afghanistan at the 2017 Asian championships in Bhubaneswar.
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She turned to boxing soon after. While her parents had grudgingly approved of her sprinting, they were strongly against her decision to box. Sadia though was determined to fight. Her decision was complicated by the fact that women’s boxing didn’t exist in Afghanistan.
“When I first wanted to box, there weren’t any coaches who trained women. When I finally found one trainer, I had to go secretly in order to train. Later when I became part of the Afghan national team, that’s when more girls joined. A lot of girls joined after that,” she says with some pride.
Even as Sadia started to train as a boxer, she also worked as a journalist. During her time as a video journalist with Zan TV- the first Afghan TV channel run by women, Sadia reported on several important stories, perhaps the most consequential of which was a scandal involving the exploitation of women footballers by officials of the national federation.
Her reporting didn’t make her many friends neither did her outspoken nature. “People told me I was being too bold for my own good. I was seen as someone who was creating rebellion against Islam. I wouldn’t always wearing the hijab and I was having tattoos and I was boxing. I started getting a lot of death threats from the Taliban and others. People asked me why I was so outspoken but that’s how I have always been. Afghans have been fighting for 40-50 years now. I was also just fighting in my own way,” she recalls.
I never liked wearing the hijab. I never wanted to be confined in a space. It didn’t matter if it was the boundaries of religion or dress or opportunity. I wanted to be free and be inspired
— Sadia Bromand
VOICE OF THE VOICELESS
Eventually Sadia was forced to leave the country. In 2018, she fled to Germany. She’s grateful for the chance to start a new life. Apart from finding a boxing gym, among her first decisions was to take off her headscarf for good. “I never liked wearing the hijab. I never wanted to be confined in a space. It didn’t matter if it was the boundaries of religion or dress or opportunity. I wanted to be free and be inspired,” she says.
And while she knows her decision would anger some in Afghanistan, she’s satisfied with her choice. “I have family in Afghanistan, who don’t like me talking to journalists because the Taliban might see me without the hijab and create problems. But I am fine with it. I feel it’s my way of promoting women’s rights,” she says.
Indeed Sadia feels the weight of responsibility on her shoulders. “After I started boxing in Afghanistan, so many young girls started learning the sport as well. But after the Taliban took over, all that has come to an end. I have friends in Afghanistan still. They are in a bad place right now. They were sportswoman and now they are imprisoned at their homes. Their dreams are over. I am devastated for them. But they want to see me compete. They message me and support me and encourage me to keep winning and win more medals. They see me as living their life for them. I have to be their voice,” says Sadia.
That is also the reason Sadia continues to represent Afghanistan, having been picked by a federation that is also in exile, just as she is. “I was born, studied and started my career in Afghanistan. Right now I fight at the club level and at the national championships in Germany. But I don’t want to fight for a European country. There are already plenty of women who represent Europe. Right now there is no woman fighting for Afghanistan. There isn’t even any right for Afghan women to play. So I have to fight for Afghanistan,” says Sadia who’s being sponsored by the IBA and who is coached by an expatriate Afghan from Australia.
While she’s grateful for the opportunity to represent her homeland, she admits the her return to sports competition for Afghanistan is bittersweet. “Since I joined the national team, all my dreams and goals have been to be proud of my country. I am in this competition, I wish we had a team like other countries (where) many girls represented our country in this competition, but unfortunately we are in the worst situation when even (if) the women of our country go to school, they cannot do sports...but there is hope,” she wrote on Instagram.
It’s that hope that keeps her motivated, even as she faces a monumental task at the world championships. And while she knows her task in New Delhi will be hard, she’s prepared for what lies ahead. “The world championships will be very hard. But being a woman in Afghanistan is harder than boxing,” she says.