A martial arts club in Afghanistan has emerged as a powerful force in the fight for female empowerment in the conservative country.
For the past two years, girls aged between 14 and 20 have been training in the Chinese martial art of Wushu under the guidance of female coach Seema Azimi and her father.
The Shaolin Wushu Club, based in Kabul, is the first group focused on the martial art in Afghanistan to be aimed at girls.
Since the club's founding in 2015, Azimi and her trainees have been practicing the sport in an effort to fight gender bias.
Last week, the group of some 20 female athletes gathered for a practice session on a snow-covered hilltop in Kabul, where Azimi spoke of her ambitions.
"I always wanted to be a winner since I was a kid. My interest in Wushu increased since I watched a movie on it and I always thought of how to arise my compatriots' interest in this sport," she explained.
Azimi learned the martial art in Isfahan, Iran, before returning to her home country two years later to set up the club, named after the famous school in Shaolin, China, an epa journalist reports.
"In the beginning, when I opened my private club two years ago to teach Wushu, no girl dared to attend at first, but gradually the number increased and presently 20 girls attend the club to practice this art of self-defense," she told epa.
Her family, especially her father and fellow practitioner Rahmatullah, supports her unorthodox career as a Wushu expert. “I am proud of my daughter and will continue to support her,” Rahmatullah said.
“My prime objective is gender equality between men and women in Afghanistan and that’s why I’m calling on all girls to break down the cultural barriers and join me in promoting Wushu to achieve this goal,” Azimi added.
With that goal in mind, Azimi and her students are keen to test their skills against competitors around the world, and say they now have the support of sports authorities in Afghanistan.
The term Wushu is the name given in Mandarin to kung fu, founded by Buddhist monks at the Shaolin Temple in the central Chinese province of Henan some 2,500 years ago.
The popularity of this sport led to its inclusion in the list of sports proposed for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, although it failed to make it to the final shortlist.
"I like to help girls in my country in order to improve their skills, so they can be the same as girls in other countries," Azimi said.
"Also, I want to help bring an end to violence against women in Afghanistan."
Her ambitions of advancing the club are especially striking in a country where women have difficulty accessing positions of responsibility and where honor crimes are still common.
According to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, at least 241 women were murdered in 2015, a 49 percent increase from the previous year.
However, despite the high number of femicides in the country, perpetrators were tried in only 30 percent of cases.
"I would like the girls to be able to protect themselves; they are as talented as any other girl anywhere in the world," Azimi said.