Words: Claire Chamberlain
Whether we realise it or not, as women who run, we make a powerful statement about who we are and what we’re capable of every time we exercise. A quick glance back to the not-so-distant past proves just how much women have battled stereotypes and male-domination within sport. Just 50 years ago, for example, women were banned from marathons because we were deemed too fragile. Trailblazers, including Kathrine Switzer (who became the first woman to officially run the all-male Boston Marathon in 1967), fearlessly pushed the boundaries of what was considered appropriate for female runners, paving the way for more of us to compete freely.
However, while we are now afforded freedom to run in Western cultures, restrictions are still very much in place for women wanting to participate in other nations around the world.
Stephanie Case, founder of Free To Run (freetorun.org), is passionate about removing global stereotypes. A human rights lawyer, Stephanie moved to Afghanistan in 2012, where she experienced first-hand just how difficult it was to train under extreme physical conditions. “I began to appreciate how integral running was to my wellbeing, self-confidence and sense of self,” she says. Determined to keep running, she started training for three ultramarathons, to raise money for a shelter in Kabul for women who had suffered domestic violence.
“I thought this was the best way I’d be able to help others during my time in Afghanistan. But after getting to know the women at the shelter, I learned they really didn’t care about the fundraising – they wanted to run the races themselves. Of course!
“They had the same desires to move freely through space as I did, and they were facing so many more restrictions than I was. In addition to the security issues, they dealt with discriminatory beliefs about women and harmful cultural norms that served to confine them to the home. I became determined to find a way to provide them with safe opportunities to do all of the things that we take for granted.”
Case founded Free To Run, a non-profit organisation that uses running and outdoor adventure to empower women living in conflict and post-conflict countries, as well as refugee populations. “Access to sports is life-changing,” she says. “Getting women outdoors enables them to reclaim public space, which ultimately helps to shift the perception of gender roles in society. Everyone deserves the chance to run, play and experience the outdoors. Access to sport is not a luxury – it is a basic human right.”
These three brave women, who have agreed to share their stories, are daring to challenge cultural norms. In doing so they are driving positive change and instilling hope in women across the globe…
Zamzam Farah loved sport from an early age. But in Somalia, where women are bound by tradition, faith and culture, and where females have been prohibited from sport, playing and training took bravery. Zamzam says her mother had a huge influence.
“I got into sport when I was five years old,” she says. “I just loved to play, and my mum was really good – she didn’t stop me. When it comes to discipline, she was strict. But she always supported me and she would never say anything wrong about my sport, so I’m always grateful to my mum.”
But even with the support of her mother, life as an aspiring sportswoman was not easy. “It’s difficult. People didn’t believe that women can do sport. So they say bad things. Sometimes they call you bad words. I had a lot of abuse, but what always kept me strong was thinking, this is what I want to do. This is where I feel happy. So whatever they say, it’s not something that can push me back. I just kept focused on what I wanted to do.”
Zamzam’s focus and determination saw her arrive in London for the Olympic Games in 2012, to compete in the Women’s 400m.
“The first day I woke up here, I couldn’t believe it. Waking up in the morning not hearing bullets or gunfire – nothing at all. And not scared about anything.”
Zamzam says being able to represent Somalia at the Olympics was a dream come true. “I was over the moon,” she enthuses. “I was a bit nervous, but so excited – I was going to be running with professional people from countries that have a good government, that don’t have a war 24/7, where you don’t see your neighbours dying or being taken to hospital, people leaving the country to survive as refugees – I was racing with people who never had that experience. They had coaches everywhere – and gyms! You know, we didn’t have facilities – we ran in the sand, we didn’t have a track or field, so it was crazy. But for me it was exciting. I was like, OK, it is just running. If you win or if you lose, you get experience.”
Zamzam ran in her 400m heat with her arms and legs covered, and wearing a headscarf. She was also fasting for Ramadan. Yet she received death threats because she had “exposed herself” by taking part.
Despite the danger, Zamzam was initially determined to return home.
“I was like, OK, this is the decision you made, don’t ever regret it. Whether it’s right or wrong, you did it, so you have to be strong whatever comes. My decision was to go back to my country, because I didn’t know anyone in the UK. I don’t know where to go, where to stay. But my coach said, ‘We’re not going to risk it – you’re not going to die for this situation’. He said, we’re going to the Home Office. I said I want to go back to Somalia, but they said we’re not going to let you go back. I still wanted to, but the week after, my mum called me and that was what changed my mind. It was painful…”
Zamzam was granted asylum, but life was hard. With nowhere to turn, she became homeless and moved to a hostel. Then after eight months, the death threats returned.
“I got a phone call saying, ‘We know where you live, we have friends in London, they do our job, they will come to your house. Tonight is going to be your last night’.”
Terrified, Zamzam barricaded herself in her hostel room. She told her key worker in the morning, and together they notified the police, who reassured her she was safe. But the experience took its toll, and Zamzam became withdrawn and isolated. That is until The Running Charity (therunningcharity.org), a grassroots organisation helping young homeless people find their feet through running, turned up at her hostel and she started training with them.
“After that, I was so happy,” she smiles. Through The Running Charity, her confidence returned and she gained a place in the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon, an experience she describes as “just crazy”. She describes crossing that finish line as, “a big relief!” Zamzam’s courage is evident, and she radiates strength and positivity. She also has a powerful message: “The message I’m sending to other women, if they’re a bit scared in life of what’s going to happen to them… if you believe in yourself and you want to do something that makes you happy, don’t be worried about anything.
“The life we have is short and we don’t know the time we’re going to die, so follow your dream. Follow whatever you want to do. Don’t let anyone say, ‘You’re a woman, you can’t do it’. You can do it. Men may be stronger than us physically, but we are really strong when it comes to doing the thing that we want to.”
Mahsa Torabi, 43, is realising her dreams through running, as well as promoting peaceful change.
Mahsa Torabi is surely one of the most positive, peaceful and powerful advocates for women’s running there is. She was dubbed the ‘Iranian Kathrine Switzer’ on social media in 2016, after she lobbied the L’ Amateur Athletic Federation of Islamic Republic of Iran (IRIAAF) for permission to run in the men-only I Run Iran Marathon, held in Shiraz, in 2016. She had to start two hours ahead of the male competitors and, running without a number, timing chip or water stations, finished the race in around five hours, receiving an official finisher’s medal. Fellow Iranian Elham Manoocheri was the only other woman to complete the race alongside Mahsa.
Fast forward to 2017, and in this year’s Tehran Marathon it was expected women would be able to take part. But two days before the race, officials announced female competitors would not be allowed to run the 26.2-mile course. Instead they could run a separate indoor 10K race.
Rather than giving up, and joined by a group of international friends who had made the journey to Iran to run with her, Mahsa formed a peaceful plan.
“I told my friends, ‘Listen to me please: all of us want to change the culture of my country. But we shouldn’t attack it. Little by little change happens.’ I told them the culture of a society is not stagnant; it can change under certain situations. After that, I gave a suggestion that we run 32.2K in a women’s park, and later run the [official] 10K.”
So it was that Mahsa and friends headed to a women’s park in the mountains, and ran 32.2K around a 700m path, before hot- footing it down to the official women’s 10K race in the stadium in Tehran, to complete the marathon distance.
“We planned for it and did it,” says Mahsa. “We did it. All my friends became happy and this was so precious to me.” Mahsa is passionate about making a statement to promote women’s rights to participate in sport through peaceful means.
“I think in the Tehran Marathon, I showed to my country I don’t accept any limitations, but I follow my dream by way of peace and friendliness,” says Mahsa. “In fact, I send my message to my country [that] with peace and friendliness we can do anything.”
She also wants women everywhere to realise their potential. “Nothing is impossible,” she says. “Please follow your dreams and reach them, because there aren’t any limitations for any people. Women should try to make a better world.”
Arzoo (surname withheld), 25, became a Free To Run ambassador in 2016, after taking part in a 250K self- supported ultramarathon.
For Arzoo, from Kabul, Afghanistan, running around the streets and surrounding hills of the city has been challenging. But it’s not, as this determined young woman has proven, impossible. Selected by Free To Run to take part in the 250K Racing The Planet Sri Lankan Ultramarathon in March 2016, as part of Afghanistan’s first mixed-gender team, Arzoo and fellow female team-mate Kubra would head out to train early in the morning, in an effort to avoid harassment. Unfortunately, they still encountered abuse, including an incident where Kubra was hit in the face by a passing male cyclist.
Undeterred, the team went on to successfully complete the ultra, following which the trio (including male runner Mahdi) were made ambassadors of Free To Run, with Arzoo invited to give a speech for International Women’s Day at the UN in Afghanistan.
“Free To Run has changed my life,” says Arzoo. “Now people know me as an ultrarunner. When I came back from the ultramarathon, friends and colleagues celebrated for me – it’s a great feeling and one that I can hardly express with words.”
As a Free To Run Ambassador, she is now encouraging other women to feel empowered through running. “I lead a Free To Run team at my university. We run three days a week, and train for one-and-a-half hours. There are 10 girls in the team.”
Arzoo feels strongly about the positive impact running can have for women, despite cultural barriers, and she is keen to spread the word.
“Sport, especially running, creates more energy – it’s a great opportunity to show to the world women in power. We can bring change. Running gives positivity and energy, and also helps you forget negativity, giving you more power and enjoyment.”
Many thanks to two inspirational charities for their help with this feature:
Free To Run’s mission is to use running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate women and girls from conflict-affected areas. For more information and to make a donation, please visit freetorun.org.
The Running Charity uses running to improve the lives of 16- to 25-year-olds who are homeless or at risk of homelessness across the UK. For more information and to make a donation, please visit therunningcharity.org.