KABUL – High-end gyms have begun foraying into an untapped fitness industry in Afghanistan, a country torn by decades of unending war and Islamist conservatism promoted by the Taliban militia during its five-year rule until 2001.
These centers, besides providing fitness training to the people of the world’s least peaceful country, also offer a whiff of freshness to Afghanistan’s efforts to smash stereotypes.
Rabia Behkam, 24, is a female trainer at a Kabul athletic facility, where she trains a batch of fitness enthusiasts – something that was unimaginable during the Taliban regime that subjected women to restrictions and limitations on their movement and curbed their freedom to work or go to school.
“We came a long way to achieve these rights, this progress. We will never allow the hard-won gains of women to be reversed by the Taliban once again,” said Behkam, the trainer at the Kabul franchise of an Australian fitness chain called F45.
Behkam admitted that there were security challenges, but insisted that the situation was still “much better for women than what it was during the Taliban regime.”
The state-of-the-art fitness center is located in a relatively quiet neighborhood in the south of Kabul and displays a massive signboard of the chain’s logo at its entrance.
To enter the facility, a visitor has to go through armored doors and archway metal detectors, which are generally used at airports and other sensitive installations around the world to detect explosive devices being carried in.
As soon as the security check is over, the loud music emanating from F45 FM blares out inside the sprawling studio, which is equipped with plasma screens and high-tech fitness machines.
Sanzar Kakar, a 36-year-old businessman, runs the facility. He has invested $1.2 million to buy the franchise rights for Afghanistan of F45, a chain spread across over 80 countries.
Kakar has inaugurated two studios in north and south of Kabul so far.
“With all quality fitness equipment imported from Australia, we offer the same quality training which is being provided in Australia at the F45 headquarters,” Kakar told EFE.
He said F45 offers a high-intensity interval training program that consists of a 45-minute workout featuring a range of 4,000 different types of exercises.
The majority of the clients are from the upper-middle class who work for foreign organizations or have their businesses and got accustomed to practicing sports after the influx of foreign troops and aid workers to the country following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001.
Residents of big cities like Kabul have picked up western lifestyles over the past 18 years either by working with foreigners or traveling abroad for studies or businesses.
During visits to the United States and the United Kingdom, Kakar became fascinated by the high-quality fitness training available in the West.
He said Kabul had gyms “in every corner of the city” but the quality of training and equipment was not on par with global standards.
He is now planning to launch his third studio in Kabul and expand his business to other Afghan provinces even as he is conscious of the security and financial risks involved, as violence has spiked in the country in the past few months.
According to the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2019 annual Global Peace Index, Afghanistan is the world’s least peaceful country from a list of 163.
The country also suffered a record number of 1,174 civilian deaths between July and September, according to the United Nations.
But some, including Kakar, believe that insecurity and war should not stop the country’s development.
“We have made tremendous progress since 2001,” Kakar said.
He said the street that houses his fitness center was once a specter of ruins and destruction. There was a bakery surrounded by buildings battered by war in the early years after the Taliban were ousted.
“But now, you can find every facility here, ranging from luxury cafes to billiards and bowling halls.”
He said if permanent peace finally arrives in Afghanistan, “you will see the country make even faster and unprecedented progress.”
Kakar sounded optimistic and hoped that the US and Taliban will finally be able to make a peace deal even as negotiations between the two are stalled.
“Like everyone, the Taliban too are tired of war. The war has to end and the peace will come. We should not lose our hope for peace.”