A democratic microcosm: The Marathon of Afghanistan
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Marathon Afghanistan
The increasing participation and leadership of women in Afghanistan's marathon, which ran from 2015 to 2020, shows the potential of sport to promote equality and inclusion.

Participation, equality and inclusion are relevant discourses and concepts which define and characterize democratic systems and layouts. This does not only apply on the level of a nation-state, a municipality, or a village leadership. Sports events can equally provide a framework in which democratic principles can unfold, develop and add value.

The Marathon of Afghanistan was an annual event that ran from 2015 -2020. It incorporated both a full marathon (42km) and a 10km race. At this period of time, it was one of the only mixed-gender sporting events in Afghanistan and remains, to our knowledge, the country's largest-ever mixed-gender sporting event. It was held in the province of Bamiyan in the Central Highlands of Afghanistan – a breathtaking and unique landscape.

The race was founded by two international and one Afghan man. Matching international organisational experience and expertise with local knowledge provided the needed skillset and impetus as there had never been a full marathon organised in Afghanistan. 

The intention was to create a race that was open to everyone and to serve the local community. In a country often divided on ethnic grounds the concept of a race for national unity was important to promote ideas of democracy and equality. 

The event grew quickly from 120 competitors in 2015 to a high of 770 in 2019 with a growing number of (international and local) female competitors, making up 50% of the participants. Starting with only one Afghan woman running the full marathon in 2015, eventually most of the females were Afghan women. The active participation of Afghan women in sport activities was not common and additional efforts were necessary to encourage them to attend and assure them about the event.

Initially, the vast majority of the women who ran signed up as part of already established organisations such as sports clubs or international organisations whose work and networks could be built on. In particular, a US-based organisation that promoted sports and especially running for women. Parallel to this, a new generation of Afghan women was ready to shift mindsets about what Afghan women are capable of despite the insecurity, traditional barriers, slim economic resources, and other challenges in their country. 

Over the years we saw changes in attitude to women taking part in sport. In Bamiyan in 2015, the sight of a group of women training was very unusual but by 2019 women would run in groups to train and not get too much attention. In addition, we saw many more women register to run independently and not as part of an organisation. We also saw women traveling as mixed groups from Kabul and other cities to take part in the event.

As more experience was gathered year-by-year, there was also a continuous shift towards less international and more local organisations. This crystalised in 2020. Due to Covid, only one international organiser was able to be involved in the race, and the promotion through international organisations working in Afghanistan did not happen. The five-person organising team was made up of three Afghan men, one Afghan woman, and one international man, with the main strategic preparation and operations all run and executed by the Afghan team members. The race was held and was successful as ever. Once again, half of the participants were females.

This move towards a locally organised race with growing and significant female influence and leadership in the organisation and greater independent participation by individual women was heartening to see and a necessary shift to sustain the system and further shape its principles and values. 

The Marathon of Afghanistan was more than a race for Afghan women. It was one of the few outdoor events where a large group of Afghan women would feel safe to practice their basic right to play sports and a true democracy by running. Afghan women who wanted to run this event were taking a lot of risks not only to practice their rights but also to be an example for other Afghan girls in their communities. They wanted to show their friends what Afghan women are capable of if there are opportunities for them. Each of these women who were participating in the Marathon of Afghanistan had their unique stories, and many of them wanted to share their stories with the world through the Marathon of Afghanistan and the international runners who were racing this race. Afghan women wanted to be seen and heard not as victims of war but as resilient and strong women. 

The race was founded and continued for six years with inclusiveness and democracy as the core values of the race. However, in 2021 there was a change of government. Women are not allowed to participate and not allowed to practice sports. As such, it was not possible to continue the race with the values that it was founded on and evolved into. The Marathon of Afghanistan was maybe only a microcosm but has the potential to act as a template or catalyst for other community-based sporting events which can alter the landscape of a region and nation.

Written by
Zeinab Rezaie, co-organiser of the Marathon of Afghanistan 
James Willcox, co-founder of the Marathon of Afghanistan




Sustainable Development Goals
16 - Peace, justice and strong institutions.
Target Group
All target groups

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