The right to run: Afghani female Olympian fights stigma with 'Secret Marathon' race in Vancouver

Friba Rezayee, one of Afghanistan's first female Olympians, knows first-hand the struggle of training in a country where women don’t have freedom of movement.

Friba Rezayee struggled to train in her home country where even a 10 minute jog outside is risky

The Secret Marathon races raise awareness and support for women in countries like Afghanistan where even a short jog outside comes with great risk. (The Secret Marathon/Facebook)

Friba Rezayee, one of Afghanistan's first female Olympians, knows first-hand the struggle of training in a country where women don't have freedom of movement.

"Growing up in Afghanistan, it was very difficult and challenging for me to go outside just for a simple 10 minute run," Rezayee said.

"Sport is [seen as] very, very provocative."

The athlete, who competed in judo in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, is now pushing to change things for other women who want to train or compete in sports.

A woman runs in Afghanistan. Girls who want to run in Afghanistan often face physical and verbal attacks when training outside. (The Secret Marathon/Facebook)

No running without permission

In some parts of the world, like Afghanistan, challenging the status quo in sports can come with dangerous consequences.

The Taliban persecute or kill those who don't toe the line. 

"It's quite risky because there is a culture of stigma that women don't go outside without the permission of their male family members."

"If a woman runs on the streets, just for a simple jog, she can be harassed or she can be attacked."

Friba Rezayee, one of Afghanistan's first female Olympians, who competed in judo in the 2004 Olympics, is organizing a race in Vancouver to raise awareness about the issues women face training and participating in sports in countries like Afghanistan. (Clare Hennig/CBC)

Secret marathon races

Rezayee now lives in Vancouver, B.C., and is organizing the local edition of the Secret Marathon three kilometre race this week.

It's part of a larger campaign to raise awareness and support for gender equality that started after Afghanistan's first marathon in 2015, held in secret and attended by both men and woman.

Canadian marathon runner Martin Parnell and filmmaker Kate McKenzie participated in the race and created a documentary called The Secret Marathon, telling the stories of runners they met along the way.

A group of Afghans prior to the country's first marathon, which prompted the Secret Marathon campaign in cities around Canada. (Kate McKenzie)

Since then, shorter races have been held around the country to raise awareness about women's freedom in sports.  

"This is what women's rights look like: to be able to do whatever she wants to do and to be safe," Rezayee said.

"When you go outside and run — this is women's rights."

Vancouver's Secret Marathon three kilometre race is being held on Wednesday, March 6. The race will begin at the Running Room at 679 Denman St. at 6:30 p.m.  

Friba Rezayee, one of Afghanistan's first female Olympians, knows first-hand the struggle of training in a country where women don't have freedom of movement. 7:46

With files from The Early Edition

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