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Dad stuck under Taliban rule, Afghan teen in Delhi masters powerlifting ‘to empower women at home’

Sajar, who moved to India with her family in 2013, won gold at the Delhi State Sub-Junior Powerlifting Championship on 5 March. She is now training for a national competition.

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New Delhi: About five months ago, 16-year-old Sajar Rajhim picked up the sport of powerlifting after joining a local gym in the national capital’s Lajpat Nagar area. Last week, she beat her peers to bag the gold medal at Delhi’s State Sub-Junior Powerlifting Championship.

Her feat gets even more impressive when one considers her circumstances. Sajar and her sisters came to India with their parents in 2013, having escaped war-torn Afghanistan for a better life. However, as of now, her father Sayed Daud Rajhim finds himself stuck in Taliban-controlled Kabul.

Sajar is happy about her achievement at the tournament, where she lifted 217 kg more than four times her own body weight. “I lifted around 217 kg and I myself am 52 kg,” she told ThePrint, giggling.

If she seemed happy, her father was overjoyed. And he couldn’t contain his excitement — while speaking over a WhatsApp call from Kabul.

But the story wasn’t meant to be like this — distant.

The family was together in India for eight years but the second wave of the pandemic in April 2021 dealt a rough hand to Sayed and his wife, both of whom lost their management jobs at a hospital in Delhi. Amid a lack of options, Sayed decided to move back to Kabul to work as local staff with the UN World Food Programme.

Little did he know that the Taliban would return to power four months later. Since then, Sayed said, a host of factors has left him “stuck”, including visa delays and the fact that his job there allows him to send money home. 

“It is hard working here in Kabul, away from my family. The restrictions on people, especially women, are high here and there is always a threat from the Taliban. But I’m glad my daughters are excelling in sports. When Sajar won gold in the Delhi tournament, I was overjoyed,” Sayed told ThePrint.

Sajar lives with her mother and sisters in a small 3BHK apartment. Her sisters — Sahar (21), Saween (13) and Sama (11) — are also training to be professional athletes in sports like judo, karate and mixed martial arts (MMA).

“My father has always encouraged my sisters and me to be fit and strong,” Sajar said.

From left to right, Sama (11), Saween (13), Sahar (21) and Sajar (16) at their home in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi | Photo: ThePrint
From left to right, Sama (11), Saween (13), Sahar (21) and Sajar (16) at their home in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi | Photo: ThePrint

Also read: Students left, funds dried up. Now India’s only Afghan refugee school looks past Covid, Taliban


‘Would like to represent Afghanistan in wrestling and India in powerlifting’

Sajar, who competes in the sub-junior category (18 years and under) and in the 52-kg weight class, lifted a total of approximately 217 kg in her latest tournament on 5 March — 67 kg in a squat, 40 kg in bench press and 110 kg in deadlift.

Unlike weightlifting, which involves picking up weights and dropping them in a fast motion, powerlifting involves lifting weights in a single plane of motion. In a tournament, powerlifters have to perform three rounds of lifting: squat, bench press and deadlift.

“The deadlift was the last round. I saw she was getting nervous so I didn’t allow her to see the weight I put down,” Sourav Besoya, Sajar’s coach and owner of Real Steel Gym, told ThePrint.

“Coach [Sourav] told me he put down 100 or 105 kg. So, I went with that mentality. It felt so easy to me. Later, when he told me how much it really was, I was shocked,” Sajar added.

Sajar is currently training for the upcoming National Classic Powerlifting Championship in Alappuzha, Kerala, starting 9 April.

According to her coach, the goal is to lift a total of 270 kg this time around.

While powerlifting is certainly the focus of young Sajar’s career, she has also been trained in wrestling and grappling.

“I started wrestling in around 2019 because my father encouraged me. That is why if I ever get the chance to compete at the international level, I would like to represent Afghanistan in wrestling and India in powerlifting,” she said.

Sajar has won silver (left) and gold (centre) medals in local competitions, besides a gold medal (right) at Delhi’s State Sub-Junior Powerlifting Championship on 5 March | Photo: ThePrint
Sajar has won silver (left) and gold (centre) medals in local competitions, besides a gold medal (right) at Delhi’s State Sub-Junior Powerlifting Championship on 5 March | Photo: ThePrint

‘Want to open world-class gym in Kabul one day’

Asked who her inspirations are, Sajar said that due to the political instability in her country, very few female athletes have been able to compete in the Olympics.

“When it comes to wrestling or powerlifting, there aren’t many female Afghan athletes that come to my mind. Also, very few Afghan women have participated in the Olympics. We have some great women cycling champions but even they have left Afghanistan because of the Taliban,” she said.

Sajar with her medals in local competitions. | Photo: ThePrint
Sajar with her medals in local competitions | Photo: ThePrint

Last November, it was reported that Afghan cyclist Rukhsar Habibzai, captain of her nation’s first women’s cycling team, was one of many who fled Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.

“I definitely want to make a good career for myself and earn enough money to set up a world-class gym in Kabul for female athletes. We’ve got good talent in Afghanistan but the Taliban does not think it is appropriate for women to do sport,” said Sajar. “Hopefully, one day that will change.”

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)


Also read: What my 20 years in Afghanistan taught me about the Taliban


 

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