A steely group of young Afghan women have made history in scaling three of Afghanistan’s highest peaks as part of an extraordinary initiative which is seeking to empower the next generation in some of the world’s war torn countries.
In a country where the oppression of women has come to define it, Ascend Afghanistan saw 13 determined women aged between 15 and 22 years old, complete a 17-day trek taking in three peaks over 16,000ft (4,876-metres) in Panjshir Province in the Hindu Kush.
Their expedition, which even a 5.7 magnitude earthquake could not hinder, signifies far more than just a physical triumph – in conquering their country’s mountains and becoming bona fide mountain climbers, the women have initiated their journey to conquering gender inequality.
The team had been preparing to tackle the country’s highest mountain, Mount Noshaq, which stands at 24,580ft (7,492-metres), but due to continued insecurity and fighting at the entrance to the valley the group was forced to choose another route to trek. One of the peaks was unnamed and unclimbed and the women subsequently named it, Daughters of the Afghan Lion Peak.
The team’s membership was drawn from across Afghanistan and took in a swathe of ethnicities. However, regardless of background, all signed-up with the same goal – to become exemplary role models and ultimately, to be part of a movement advancing women’s rights.
The climbers started serving as mentors in their communities before the trek took place and they will continue to share their experiences with school students and community groups in addition to working as volunteers with orphans and street children in Kabul. The women will also help train the next group of climbers.
Nilofar, 21, the oldest of four sisters who took part in the expedition, hopes the accomplishment may lead to a scholarship that will enable her to train as a midwife. Sohaila, 19, did not have the opportunity to finish school because her family fled to Iran when she was nine or 10 years old, so she had few hopes and dreams. But through climbing, she discovered a new sense of self-worth, and emerged as one of the group’s strongest public speakers.
Aynoora, 16, and her sister Yasamin, 19, who are from a conservative Pashtun background, were late additions to the team due to their parents’ hesitation over their daughters’ involvement in the project, but they shone as two of the most hardworking and reliable team members and were an inspiration to the other women.
Ascend Afghanistan was the inaugural project of Virginia based NGO Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics, founded by Marina LeGree, 36, which seeks to empower the next generation of leaders through sports. The NGO works with young men and women in countries in conflict, helping them develop the confidence and skills they need to lead their communities towards a more secure future and play a central role in their nation’s transition from war to peace.
The August expedition in the remote and impoverished north east of the country, was led by experienced American mountaineers Danika Gilbert and Emilie Drinkwater. It was the culmination of a rigorous, 10-month training programme which at times was hindered by unrest, including a succession of explosions and bombings in Kabul.
“By us climbing these mountains we can show that not just men can do this, but women can too,” said Diba, team member.
The expedition also drew support from provincial government figures: Panjshir Provincial Governor, Mohammad Arif Sarwari, said: “We want to encourage women and girls. Afghanistan’s daughters are strong, and we are proud to host this effort in Panjshir.”
“We in Panjshir province are proud to host this remarkable team and we applaud this unique achievement for all Afghans,” added Panjshir Foreign Relations Secretary, Bakhtiar Soreshir.
“The expedition turned out to be an enormous achievement for each of the girls individually, and for the team as a whole,” said Marina. “There were challenges to overcome of every sort, from minor injuries to internal squabbles to an earthquake and a few panic attacks. But the team pulled together and stuck with it, achieving a major victory by summiting three peaks over 16,000 feet.
“The next phase of the program has them using this opportunity in the spotlight to demonstrate leadership through service. They are beginning volunteer projects in their communities, mostly working with street children in Kabul. They have also spoken at two girls’ schools already and will speak at more in the future, to deliver a message of achievement and hope to other young women.”