Born a refugee in Iran, Zainab Hussaini has long refused to allow any obstacle to stand in her way of pursuing a passion for sport. As a teenager, Zainab saw her taekwondo club shut down by police for running girls’ sessions, but she refused to give up. In 2015, she became the first Afghan woman to run the Marathon of Afghanistan, and later, the first Afghan to complete an ultramarathon. She achieved this despite it being unsafe for her to train on the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif.
With a senior leadership role at Skateistan, the non-profit organisation that empowers children through skateboarding and education in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, she is helping the next generation to remain in school as the popularity of skateboarding in Afghanistan continues to grow. Zainab speaks to the IOC about her journey, her pride in being a part of Skateistan and the rising number of role models whom young girls can look up to today.
How did your passion for sport begin?
“I was born a refugee in Iran. I became familiar with sport at school and was a member of our basketball team in Iran, when I was around 11 or 12 years old. But the refugee situation meant I couldn’t continue with basketball. We didn’t have the legal documents to be registered in a sports club or gym.
“When we came back to Afghanistan, our lifestyle was really basic. We didn’t have water or electricity – my family and I were living in poverty – but we had the courage to believe in our dreams. I registered with a taekwondo club and started to train with some friends and my aunt. But after two weeks, the police arrived and shut down the club; they said it’s not proper for girls to take part in sports and to practise in the same club as men or to use the same equipment. But this was not the end of the line for me. I registered in my basketball team in our high school, and while we didn’t have enough equipment or even a concrete ground to play on, we practised hard and we were then able to participate in provisional competitions. I had an interest in trying many different sports to find my talent, and now, I’m a marathon runner.”
How did your journey with Skateistan start and what led to your participation in running events?
“Before Skateistan, I was working with Women for Women International in Afghanistan. Our project had ended, and I was jobless. I was searching on job websites and I saw that Skateistan were in need of a Sports Coordinator. I applied and, with my sports background, I was successful. After two to three years, an organisation named Free to Run asked Skateistan to introduce some female candidates to take part in an ultramarathon competition.
“This was the start of a new journey. We trained and faced lots of challenges in finding a space to run; we didn’t have security and we couldn’t run on the streets like athletes from other countries. We had to run around our small home gardens. We tried to return to the streets to train, but it was too dangerous. We realised that Afghanistan is not yet ready to accept women practising sports in public, so our homes were the safest place for us.
“Eventually, we could finish the ultramarathon race along with other participants from many different countries, and Afghanistan went to the list of countries who completed an ultramarathon.”
What is it that makes Skateistan so special and what projects are you most proud of?
“We have a back-to-school programme at Skateistan. I really want to see that one day there are no out-of-school children in Afghanistan. There are internally displaced children who have been forced to flee their provinces and can’t go to school because they are over the age of entering the first grade or don’t have the documents to be registered in public schools. This is where the support and contribution of Skateistan comes in; students can come here and learn for one year, and we then provide the legal procedures for them to enter school again.
“We believe that education is really important, and skateboarding is a prize for all of our students. We teach them creative classes, back-to-school classes, public school subjects, and then we ask them to join one hour of skateboarding after each session. Skateboarding has become the largest sport for girls in Afghanistan and it’s all because of the opportunity that the children, especially the girls, have with Skateistan by practising in a safe space.”
What advice do you have for young girls?
“I want to say to girls, not only Afghan girls, that barriers exist all over the world. It’s everyone’s job to advocate change. Limitations shouldn’t be a barrier; security shouldn’t be a barrier; and poverty, especially, shouldn’t be a barrier. There is always a way and you have to find the solution.”
There are now three women holding key leadership positions in the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Why is it essential to make female role models more visible in sport and in other spheres of society?
“When I ran the marathon for the first time, I was searching for the first Afghan women who took part in any kind of sport. I searched many books and websites, I even visited the people who were involved in the history of sport for Afghanistan, but I couldn’t find a female name. All of them were from outside of the country. The history was not written.
“By having women in leadership roles, girls can now start to choose their role models. We need more role models who come from the same background as the girls themselves, who have overcome the same situations and challenges. I’m sure these female leaders will bring lots of changes in gender equality, because they will be seeing the girls and women as themselves. They know the barriers we face, they know our problems, and they know our abilities.”
What do you think the contribution of the Olympic Games is in building a more inclusive society?
“Everyone knows that the Olympic Games is the ‘Mother of Sport’. Every four years, the people are watching and wondering which country will host the Games and which athletes will take part from our country. It’s a very powerful moment for everyone in the cities of Afghanistan to see our flag at the Games. We are united when one of our athletes wins a medal for our country. Being a part of this worldwide event helps to spread the message of unity, humanity and equality.”
Founded in 2008 in Kabul (Afghanistan) and headquartered in Berlin (Germany), Skateistan has developed several programmes that reach more than 2,500 children, aged between 5 and 17, also in Cambodia and South Africa.
The organisation uses skateboarding to create safe environments where girls can overcome barriers and gain access to sport and education.
In 2020, the documentary Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), which follows the progress of a group of girls at Skateistan in Kabul, was awarded the BAFTA for Best British Short Film (Documentary) and an Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
Skateistan is the World Winner of the IOC Women and Sport Award 2020.