The Young Boxer Who Left Kabul to Enter the Ring on Behalf of Afghan Women

Seema Rezai, 18 years old, left her boxing gloves in Afghanistan. There, Rezai was a member of Afghanistan’s national boxing team — an undefeated champion and one of very few women in her country to take part in the male-dominated sport. Now, she’s a refugee. Despite not having brought her equipment, she still wakes up every morning at 5 AM to train. In the thick Qatari heat, Rezai runs laps around her residence — a villa complex built to accommodate guests for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It is now being used to house Afghan refugees transiting through the small Gulf country.

Rezai wears her aspirations on her sleeve: a tattoo, proudly displayed on her hand reads, “boxer”. Another, of the five interlocking Olympic rings, symbolizes her dream to win an Olympic medal for country.

“I love boxing and fighting,” she says, smiling shyly.

Her soft-spokenness is deceptive. Rezai became a boxer against her parents wishes. She even bullied her way into the sport — her trainer was initially hesitant to train a woman, she says, because it was not a normalized activity for women in Afghanistan. But her passion for the sport ultimately convinced him. Six months later, she had made it onto Afghanistan’s national boxing team, and remains undefeated two years later.

When the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital of Kabul on August 15, Rezai knew she had to leave.

The Islamist insurgents had made lightning-quick advances across the country, emboldened by the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan after a 20-year presence in the country. Within a matter of days, the Afghan government had collapsed, Afghanistan’s president had fled, and all major cities were captured.

“We were not at all prepared mentally or physically for the Taliban to enter Kabul city,” Rezai laments from her temporary accommodation in Qatar. “When they entered, I was shocked.”

Her family was concerned her life would be in danger under Taliban rule, due to her high profile on Afghanistan’s boxing team and for being an outspoken women’s rights activist in the media.

Rezai had only heard stories of life under Taliban rule. “I knew the Taliban had very strict rules against women, and that they would not allow women to practice boxing or other sports,” she says.

“Without boxing, I could not live. Because my profession, my ambition, my everything belongs to boxing,” Rezai explains. “So I made a plan to get out of Afghanistan.”

With her parents and siblings, she stood outside of Kabul’s international airport for two days — along with tens of thousands of other Afghans seeking to escape Taliban rule.

It seemed impossible. But eventually, a journalist who had previously interviewed her about her activism contacted her. He had managed to get her name on a list of evacuees, facilitated by Qatar.

But he could only get her name on the list. Not her family.

Now the 18-year old Rezai is alone in Qatar, living in a compound with other Afghan refugees. She lives in a limbo state that is common to many displaced people, awaiting relocation to a safe country.

“Physically, I’m here,” she says of her evacuation. “But mentally, I’m in Afghanistan.”

She misses her family. “It’s very difficult for me to be here by myself, in a foreign country.”

To take her mind off of her significant worries Rezai tries to keep in shape, despite Qatar’s thick summer heat. Boxing requires constant training, she explains, because skipping training would make her weak.

Rezai applies the same mentality to her refugee status: “I will keep using my voice to bring attention to women in Afghanistan,” she tells Factstory, because to be silent is to be weak. “Wherever I go, I will speak for them.”

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