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By Agnieszka Flak and Hassib Sadat
KABUL (Reuters) - Teenage Afghan sisters Shabnam and Sadaf Rahimi are taking the fight for women's rights more literally than most of their peers, throwing punches in a ring as members of their country's first team of female boxers.
They practice inside a spartan gym with broken mirrors, flaking paint, four punching bags, and a concrete floor padded with faded pink and green mats. Some girls wear face masks to keep away the dust coming up from the floor.
"It was my dream to become a boxer. At first my father did not agree with me. He said girls should not be boxing," 18 year-old Sadaf told Reuters, out of breath from punching the bag. "After I got my first medal, he changed his mind."
Female boxing is still relatively unusual in most countries, but especially in Afghanistan, where many girls and women still face a struggle to secure an education or work, and activists say violence and abuse at home is common.
Three times a week, the girls come to practise at the Ghazi stadium, once used for public punishment by the Taliban, the hardline Islamists who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001.
Women were stoned for adultery there and despite an expensive revamp, its gory past sometimes spooks the athletes.
"My family fled to Iran during the Taliban...but I heard that women used to be killed here and sometimes when I exercise alone inside the stadium I panic," Sadaf said.
Under the Taliban, all sports for women were banned. They still have far fewer opportunities for exercise than men.
Boys peered through the dirty training hall windows during one practice, curiosity piqued by the sight of girls doing push ups and throwing punches.
Not all onlookers are simply curious.
Many in this conservative society still consider fighting taboo for women, and the girls deal with serious threats.
"Two years ago someone called my father...and threatened that he would either kidnap or kill us if he let us train," 19- year-old Shabnam said.
They did not return to training for a month, until their trainer offered to organise transport for the girls, and still limit workouts to the gym, where the government provides security.
The team was created in 2007 by Afghanistan's National Olympic Committee to challenge stereotypes and encourage girls to stand up for what they believe in.
"We want to show the world that Afghan women can be leaders, too, that they can do anything, even boxing," their coach, Mohammad Saber Sharifi, said.
The team received some financial support from the Olympic committee and a local non-governmental group, Cooperation for Peace and Unity, but supplies are still scarce.
Sharifi, himself a former professional boxing champion, hopes to source more support to build a boxing ring, improve their equipment and send the girls to international meets to hone their skills.
The biggest hope is to reach the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where women's boxing will debut as a medal sport, but a tough qualification round in China in May stands in the way.
No Afghan woman has ever won a medal at the Olympic games, but taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nikpai may have paved the way by taking a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games, becoming a national hero in the process.
The Rahimi sisters are aiming at the same podium. Shabnam won her first gold medal at an international competition in Tajikistan this year, where her younger sister also took silver.
"I want to become a good boxer so that I can bring more pride to my country. My dream is to raise the Afghan flag for my country," Shabnam said.
(Reporting by Agnieszka Flak, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)
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