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Afghan volleyball champion encourages young women to fight for their dreams

Muzhgan Sadaat was 10 when she started playing volleyball. But as she grew older, her father thought it wasn’t appropriate for her to continue. “He said our relatives didn’t like it,” recalls Muzhgan. “They believed it was shameful for a girl to play sports.”

Volleyball star Muzhgan Sadaat poses with a poster the Sustainable Development Goals. © UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat
Muzhgan's team competes in a volleyball match in Kabul. © UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

Now 23 years old, Muzhgan transforms from a soft-spoken, happy-go-lucky young woman to one of steely conviction when asked about women in sports.

It is this consummate confidence that has turned her into a champion on one of Afghanistan’s first women’s national volleyball teams. Against her father’s advice, she continued to play after school and even sneaked out with her friends at weekends.

Muzhgan (right) listens as the national anthem is played before a match. © UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

Relatives and extended family members thought she was immodest, “but I ignored them, because I had to achieve my dreams,” says Muzhgan.

She still had the support of her mother, and this helped her pursue her passion for several years, until eventually she was chosen to join the national volleyball team.

© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

When her father found out, he was shocked at first and told her that she had to stop playing. “My dad was worried about my safety and wouldn’t let me play,” says Muzhgan. But after several months of convincing, she received her father’s support.

Muzghan joined the national team and travelled to compete in national contests, as well as regional ones in Tajikistan and India. She brought home fame and trophies. And people’s perceptions began to change.

“I brought pride to my father and my family,” says Muzhgan. “Now, even my relatives are proud of me. They congratulate me on my wins and are pleased when they see me on TV.”
Muzhgat's team listen attentively to their trainer. © UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat
© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

Muzhgan is now an advocate for girls in sports. She trains girls and convinces their parents to allow them to play. Muzhghan thinks that girls have a lot of potential, but their sports ambitions die as they get older and their families restrict their mobility.

She believes success doesn’t come without fighting for it. “If you don’t try to achieve your goals and dreams, others won’t do it for you,” says Muzhgan.

Grappling with a legacy of war and the stripping of women’s rights under the Taliban, Afghanistan is one of the toughest places in the world to grow up female. Muzhgan is one of the lucky ones, with parents who support her attending university.

© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

Since 2002, school enrolment has skyrocketed. According to the Afghan Education Ministry, girls now make up 40 percent of the nine million students enrolled. But higher education remains out of reach for most girls.

Despite the many challenges they face, young women like Muzghan are brave enough to fight the restrictions that local customs impose.

© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat
© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat
© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

Celebrating these achievements, UNDP organized a volleyball tournament for five leading women’s volleyball teams from the Kabul area. The event held at Kabul University coincided with the Elimination of Violence Against Women campaign.

More than 1,500 students, youth and civil activists watched as the teams competed for the Kabul Women Volleyball Cup of the Year. In the end, Muzhgan’s team took home the trophy.

Muzghan has proved that sports can help people think differently about women, whether it is their sisters, their daughters or their wives.

© UNDP Afghanistan / Omer Sadaat

“When young people see them playing with such skill, it inspires them, and they’re more likely to let their sisters and wives play sports,” said Muzghan. By changing attitudes, she believes more women in sports can even help eliminate violence against women.

Sports events like these are an opportunity for young women to demonstrate their talent and give an example to society of how women can succeed.

“This provides us a platform to show the world that women can do things,” Muzhgan says. “We can do it.”
Footnote: Story by Jalaluddin Kasaat and Sayed Omer Sadaat; photos by Omer Sadaat/UNDP Afghanistan
Kabul, Afghanistan