Gyms have grown popular in Afghanistan’s capital in recent years, but the country’s conservative culture meant that women could not use them with men. One female entrepreneur saw that as an opportunity, and five years ago opened Ladies World, a women-only exercise facility with modern equipment, a sauna, swimming pool, beauty salon and area for physiotherapy.

Five years later, Shabnam Nazari says her business is thriving and she is looking into opening several branches in other parts of the capital.

“Our initiative may come across as something unusual to some people in Afghanistan, but those who understand where I am coming from appreciate our efforts,” Nazari told VOA. “They encourage us to expand our business in other areas of Kabul city, as well.”

Nazari got interested in exercise while living in Russia and Uzbekistan. When she returned to Afghanistan, she started her business, but it was difficult at first. Cultural values and the novelty of a women-only gym meant she had to work hard on the marketing, educating women and their families about the benefits of exercise.

Now, things have changed for her and her center.

Zuhal, who like many Afghans go by one name, is a regular member. She told VOA that she joined the facility six months ago and is quite grateful.

“Those who work out here are very happy with the initiative. This facility has made it possible for women to get out of their houses and come here to exercise,” Zuhal said. “Now we can pay better attention to our health and well-being.”

Struggle to operate

Even after five years in business, Nazari feels social pressure about her work from more conservative friends and relatives. But she remains committed to the business.

“It is inevitable for women to run into problems when they decide to break with tradition and get out of the house to work,” Nazari said. “But I believe that we have to fight the emerging problems for the development of women.” 

Women in Afghanistan remain subject to all kinds of restrictions and limitations on their movement, but Ladies World is one place that provides an environment for them to meet outside their homes.

The center has flexibility in its operating hours to accommodate women who cannot work out on a set schedule because of competing family priorities.

Limits for women

Female participation in sports remains very limited in Afghanistan, even though the country sends female competitors to national and international sports events. 

Tahmina Kohistani became an icon, representing Afghanistan in the 2012 London Olympics. She was the only female athlete from Afghanistan and competed in the 100-meter sprint.

In an op-ed that she wrote for the Guardian at the time, she said her goal was to tell the world that Afghan women could be as competitive as others.

“I am here to begin a new era for the women of Afghanistan to show people that we can do the same things that people from other countries can do. There is no difference between us,” Tahmina wrote in her piece.

Hikmat Sorosh of the VOA Afghan service contributed to this report from Kabul.