By Ziba Balkhi
Latifa* comes to Khaled Ibn Walid park every day before the sun rises for air and for exercise. She’s fighting to stave off her depression after it really sunk in about nine months ago.
“I went to see a psychologist,” Latifa says. “She advised me to be with people in the community and to exercise. That’s why I come to this park every morning at 6:00 or 6:30 to exercise for almost an hour.”
The 24-year-old brings her mother with her to the park in the south of Mazar-i-Sharif city. Her mother has high blood pressure and is similarly struggling with mental health since the Taliban-imposed rules restricted their lives. Latifa said her mother also started exercising on a doctor’s recommendation.
They leave by 8:00am because soon the Taliban will arrive to clear the women out.
“We only exercise in the park until 8:00am. After that, the Taliban come and forcefully kick the women out of the park with insults and humiliation,” she says. “Sometimes they say ‘You don’t come here for exercise. You come here for fun when you get bored at home.”
The park is one of the few places left in Balkh province where women can exercise unhindered. Khaled Ibn Walid park is dedicated to women for every day from 6:00am to 8:30am.
On any given day, there’s groups of women and girls in the park, still covered head-to-toe in black, practicing various sports with equipment, or jogging in laps.
Local sources say that the park is filling up in the mornings as more women seek a brief reprieve from being stuck at home all day. Some say the increase in depression, especially in the past year, has seen the number of park visitors rise.
But even this little window of freedom is not carefree.
“Really, for a few moments when I come here for exercise, all my worries go away, but this behavior of the Taliban bothers us,” she says. “We are afraid every moment that they will come and kick us out of the park.”
The Taliban officially decreed on 13 November 2022 that women were banned from going to gyms, amusement parks, and outdoor recreational areas including garden restaurants in Afghanistan.
The spokesperson for the Taliban’s Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Mohammad Akif Sadiq told AFP at the time, “The gyms are closed to women because their trainers are men and some of these gyms allowed men and women to mix.”
Besides Khaled Ibn Waleed Park, more early morning groups of women can be seen walking on the roads of Mazar-e-Sharif, including the streets around the Shrine of Ali and on the 40-Meter Road. But the groups are small as the Taliban will break up any larger groups.
Rising depression is a driver for the exercise
Rukhshana Media spoke to several of the women about their reasons for the early walks. Several women mention exercise for various reasons: to lose weight, to treat high blood pressure and blood lipids. But the most important reason they say, is to combat depression.
Monesa, 52, is walking along about the Shrine of Ali in Mazar. She says she has been going out for early walks for four months because she is overweight. She walks for 1.5 hours a day and claims that she has lost eight kilos since she began.
“Our house is at the gate of Balkh. I walk from home to the holy mosque (Shrine of Ali) and walk around it sometimes once and sometimes twice,” she says. “This walk is very useful, I have lost a little weight.”
On the roads around the shrine, you won’t see more than two or three women together. Monesa explains she used to come with friends, the Taliban has separated them with mocking and abusive words.
“When there are more than three people, the Taliban members, who are standing at the gate of the shrine, they shout to stay away,” Monesa says. “They say, You’ve just come here to chit-chat and laugh and you use sport as an excuse.
“I used to come together with the women of our neighbourhood, but now I come alone.”
She says she still sees it happening to other groups of women. “Two weeks ago, five or six women were walking in front of me, but the Taliban at the entrance of the shrine told them not to hang out together anymore. They said, you are using sport as an excuse!
“Now when the women see the Taliban members, they quickly move away from each other until they pass the Taliban and then they come together again.”
With no official records available, its difficult to accurately measure the rise of depression in women in Balkh. However, other circumstantial reports are similarly pointing to an increase such as a steep rise in the use of sleeping pills and heavy sedatives, according to psychologists and pharmacists. They say it correlates strongly to the oppressive restrictions of living under Taliban rule.
photo: Rukhashana media.
The situation in Badakhshan is even worse
But not all provinces are allowing women to exercise – not even at restricted hours in restricted locations.
In Badakhshan Province’s city of Faizabad, the Taliban only allow old women to walk outside in the morning.
A local reporter in the northern province tells Rukhshana Media, on condition of anonymity, that four months ago many women and girls were seen in the roads of Faizabad city for morning exercise. But four months ago, the local Taliban put a stop to it with the morality police standing at intersections in the city to prevent it.
“It’s been almost a year and a half that women started coming to exercise in the morning because depression is affecting more women,” the reporter says. “Back then, they were forced to walk in the morning, but unfortunately even this right has been taken away from them about four months ago.
“Now only old ladies are allowed to walk.”
Faizabad resident Nadia*, 28, was an undergraduate of Dari literature in her third year at Badakhshan University when the Taliban closed universities to women last year.
She was earning some income as a beautician. Then a few months ago, the Taliban banned beauty salons.
Nadia says that she decided to exercise every day in the morning to try and cure her depression. She used to walk for at least 30 minutes a day on Dasht-e-Shohada road in Faizabad. But now that’s also been taken away.
She says she’d noticed a growing number of girls and women coming out for walks. But without warning, the younger girls were told they could no longer do so.
“It’s been four months or more since we didn’t go for a walk anymore,” Nadia says.
“We were with my mother and some other women when the Taliban’s Vice and Virtue guys stopped us and said, The young women who are with you are not allowed to go. They said to us that you are coming for fun.
“Only grown women should exercise, right? They said that because they are old, their legs and back pain and they need to exercise. But you are young, it’s bad to leave the house. It’s better to be at home.”
Nadia said that her mental condition has been worsening ever since.
Rezwana Yari*, a psychologist in Balkh province, says that she usually recommends exercise as the first necessity to treat depression. But the Taliban does not listen to such advice.
“Body and mind are connected. When the body is not healthy, the mind is not healthy, and when our mind is not healthy, the body becomes weak,” Ms Yari says. “Exercise can give them physical and mental happiness. For those who have depression and irregular sleep, we suggest exercise.”
*Some names have changed for their safety.