Nigara Shaheen: The Refugee Role Model who made it all the way to Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Against all odds, Nigara Shaheen made her Olympic debut in Tokyo, inspiring others and speaking up for women's rights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.

Picture by IOC IOC

Nigara Shaheen made her Olympic debut at the Nippon Budokan on 28 July 2021 in the -70kg category, a high point in her incredible journey as an IOC Refugee Athlete.

Born in Afghanistan, her family fled Jalalabad on the banks of the Kabul River when she was six months old because of the war in Afghanistan, carrying her for two days and two nights across the border into Pakistan in 1993.

And today she made her Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, coming up against Brazilian Maria Portela from Brazil, a victory in itself for Shaheen just to step onto the mat on hallowed ground in the Nippon Budokan, the home of judo.

Portela, a 2020 World Championships bronze medallist proved too much for Shaheen, winning by Ippon with a clinical sode-tsurikomi-goshi throw.

Nigara Shaheen Olympic debut

Practising martial arts was a family tradition, and Shaheen first tried karate, but found what she needed in judo, starting when she was 11 while living as a refugee in Peshawar.

"I found in judo the way that allowed me to find confidence and show my strength when I needed it," she told judoinside.com.

Unafraid to stand up for what she believes in, Shaheen has spoken up for women's rights in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"I think it is more related to the ideology of women in our country. In judo, women have a close encounter with a male partner, at least the male instructor, and this is not traditionally and culturally accepted.

"Being the only female judoka in Afghanistan, I have to practise with the men.

"Unfortunately, there are so many social taboos connected with women playing sports in my country. I would be proud if in the long run I could be considered a role model for other girls or women in Afghanistan... I personally believe that Afghanistan needs us and I am proud to be involved in the future of my country," she wrote on her blog.

Her attempts to effect change and inspire others has brought criticism, bullying, and even threats on her life.

"I’ve been harassed and bullied a lot," Shaheen told Al Jazeera just before Tokyo 2020.

"In Peshawar and Kabul, we were scared and worried for our security. I’ve been targeted and received God knows how many threats on social media. There are Facebook pages created in my name posting stuff about me."

"It’s been hard. But all those things have made me stronger. It was rough but if it wasn’t for all those things, I wouldn’t be where I am today."

For Shaheen, the symbolic importance of her appearance at an Olympic Games representing the millions of refugees all over the planet cannot be overstated.

"My presence itself should give hope to all young Afghan girls that are dreaming of the Olympics," she continues to Al Jazeera.

"I have faced all the obstacles they are facing. But If I can do it, so can they. It is hard but nothing is out of the human capacity.

"Find what you’re really passionate about and follow it no matter what."

Nigara Shaheen: Inspiration

Chosen as one of six judoka selected on the 29-strong IOC Refugee Athlete Team to take part at the Tokyo Games, this is a milestone achievement.

At 28 years old, Shaheen can take her Olympics experience with her and build for the future, with Paris 2024 just three short years away.

As a member of the IJF Refugee Team, she participated in the Düsseldorf Grand Slam in 2020 and the Kazan Grand Slam in 2021, and now her judo CV has an Olympic Games on it too.

Speaking of CVs, she is studying international trade at the university in Ekaterinburg, and is aiming to get her master’s degree in international business, trade and commerce at Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg, Russian Federation.

She says judo has helped her academically. "Judo helped me to strengthen my self-confidence not only in exams but also in my daily life, whether in debates, competitions or more," as she told judoinside.com.

Growing, learning, and inspiring others, Shaheen's journey has only just begun.