KABUL, Afghanistan -- From a mountaintop some 7,200 feet above sea level, a group of female Afghan mountaineers huddle together for warmth, looking down on the city dwarfed by the snow-capped peaks that encircle it.
Despite the urban smog and hectic traffic down below -- where suicide bombers are known to detonate during rush hour -- up high, it's almost peaceful.
It’s rare to see women in public without their families in Afghanistan, an ultra-conservative country plagued by decades of devastating warfare. It’s even rarer to see them hiking a mountain.
While these women -- all part of an organization called Ascend -- have their eyes set on the country’s highest peak, Mount Noshaq, their ultimate goal is even grander than summiting Afghanistan’s most daunting mountain.
The team members are challenging rigid gender norms by developing a space in society where young women can grow into Afghanistan’s future leaders. One of the climbers aspires to be Afghanistan’s first female president. Another, to be a future head of the United Nations.
“They say it’s dangerous -- that we can’t climb mountains,” says 18-year-old Taiba, with an air of defiance. “But I can do anything.”
A Steep Challenge
The 24,580-foot-high mountain is far from the only obstacle the women face. Some of the team members, whose full names are not provided to protect their identities, have dropped out of school after getting married to assume more traditional roles as wives and mothers. Families have protested the idea of the girls going off on expeditions without guardians.
There are also the bureaucratic and safety issues surrounding travel in Afghanistan, especially on a mountain few have summited. The women can't publicly say when exactly they plan to climb Mount Noshaq, due to concerns for their safety. And funding is always a problem.
But for Ascend’s 28 members, ages 15 to 22, just having the opportunity to attempt this feat is half the battle. They remain determined, the mountain always on their minds.
As they hike, the smell of spicy chicken kebab -- lunch carried in each of the girls' bags -- lingers in the thin air.
“[Mountaineering] helps you find your way,” says 15-year-old Zahra.
“I think that I’ve become so strong,” she continues. “Especially in Afghanistan, men think that they’re the only ones who can do everything. We will prove that women are equal with men, even more powerful.”
Afghan And American Women Join Forces
Dr. Kerstin May, a Colorado-based ER doctor who will accompany the team on the Mount Noshaq expedition, says the team’s powerful message resonated with her. She felt compelled to join forces with Ascend and put her medical knowledge to good use.
The organization, spearheaded by former aid worker Marina LeGree, has brought together American and Afghan women since 2013.
Many of the Americans are mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves, stepping up to donate equipment, provide logistical support and coordinate training.
“As a woman in a male-dominated profession, I deal with sexism at work on a daily basis,” May says. “However, it's much easier to be a female physician now than it was 20 years ago.”
“Big change starts with small steps. Having the opportunity to help these girls achieve change in their lives is a real honor.”
Big change starts with small steps. Having the opportunity to help these girls achieve change in their lives is a real honor. Dr. Kerstin May, ER doctor
May plans to lead a first-aid course this spring to help educate the climbing team on topics like nutrition, wound and burn care, hypothermia, sprains and fractures, evacuation methods, CPR and hemorrhage control.
She also plans to dedicate a significant portion of her lesson to women's health and reproductive issues -- menstruation, bladder infections, pregnancy and sexual assault -- that are rarely discussed in Afghanistan.
LeGree, the group’s founder, says many of the young women have misconceptions about their own bodies, leading them to fear menstrual cycles and things like urinary tract infections that can be managed and treated if they have the right information.
“We want them to feel empowered,” she says, adding that a requirement of the organization is community service. “We’re not trying to be overly revolutionary -- it’s very much in line with Islam. But if you want to be a role model and help others, you want to be sure of yourself.”
Breaking New Ground
On the mountain overlooking Kabul, a teenage girl in a bright red jacket grabs a handful of powdery snow, packs it tightly and lobs the snowball downhill at an unsuspecting friend amid a chorus of giggles and shrieks. It seems like an ordinary winter day.
Freshta, who is in her fourth year of business management studies in Kabul and serves as Ascend’s program coordinator, says the organization has given Afghan women like her a safe place to expand their hopes and dreams.
“Unfortunately, the majority of our women are not independent,” Freshta says. “They’re living in the dark.”
Yet with the support of her family, the young woman says, she feels like the sky’s the limit. “In Afghanistan, women are thinking they don't have any value, but they have!”
After several hours of hiking, the team reaches the base of the mountain, where local boys trail behind them, staring in bewilderment at the confident, gear-outfitted group of young women.
Once inside the team bus, the women close the window curtains, sealing themselves off from the outside world.
As they hurtle through Kabul traffic, the girls, still in their dirt-caked shoes, ask the trusted driver to turn up the music. It's time to dance.