The Tide is Turning~Helena Saboori

Afghan citizen Helena Saboori broke many taboos and overcame numerous odds against women to become a swimming champion in Afghanistan and mature into a role model

The Womenz team is privileged to bring it to our readers an Exclusive interview with Helena Saboori, Swimmer & Head - Women’s Swimming Committee of Afghanistan and here’s what she shared with us

Being women and taking part in sports like swimming that too in very conservative Afghanistan. How you dreamt of this?

Not only men but all human beings, including women, have the right to live, to enjoy, and to develop their skills and abilities. Swimming brings no damage to anyone or anything. Yet, there is one obstacle on its way: the conservative culture, which indeed needs to be crossed someday. Instead, we ought to create a new culture of friendship, compassion, peace and improvement.

How you learnt swimming? Who taught you?

I have been my own instructor. Since I was so passionate of swimming, I would watch training videos and practice with perseverance.


It is said that Afghanistan’s religious and cultural norms prevent women from baring flesh in public. Also the country is still at war scenario and facing threats from terrorism. How you managed to be a swimmer and also train your team for Olympics?

Even now in some provinces of Afghanistan women are not allowed to go out alone despite fully covering their bodies. But in some other provinces like Kabul and Bamiyan, where people’s mentality has elevated, men are not against women’s progress except for some who have extreme radical views and oppose women’s participation in sport. However, our sport is not at all against Islam and we try to maintain our Islamic Hijab by wearing Islamic maillots covering our head to toe. We must not give a chance to those who object peace and also women’s progress because more than half of a society is comprised of women and their backwardness equals that of the society and Afghanistan’s future generations.


Due to cultural and religious norms you must be having some restrictions on your swimming costumes. How are you addressing it?

As the first lady to have crossed cultural barriers in order to be an example for other women, I accept that there are some restrictions but the Islamic Maillots, designed in a way that cover the woman’s body from head to toe, to those restrictions. Women in countries like Turkmenistan, Iran and some other Muslim countries wear this kind of costume. 


Was it easy to get other team members and train them?

Despite all problems I tackled with within the last years, the only positive point which gave me hope and strength to continue was girls’ increasing enthusiasm for swimming. After hearing about me and my job, many girls have shown interest to join the club.


Tell us something about your family and their support to you in this cause?

There was no objection on behalf of my family at first but eventually after the threats, they asked me not to continue or at least be careful not to make trouble for myself and my family.


What are the major difficulties / hurdles you faced to reach till hear? How you faced and conquered them?

One of the regular problems I face is when I encounter some really unreasonable men who are against my work just without any reason. But even worse are those who understand the importance of what I do, yet deny any assistance. For instance; the swimming federation, which tries to show off before international media by organizing press conferences and electing me as the head of the women’s swimming committee, has not really done anything important for the female swimmers – same as other government officials. Recently, I was threatened several times because of appearing in the media, but I was not disappointed and I continue my exercise with more caution. It has been hard for me and my team to continue despite the negligence, but we tried our best to look for national and international supporters who would help us develop and expand our team.



Do you have all the facilities required for practice and training?

We don’t acquire the most basic facilities and our swimmers go to swimming pools to practice on their own. The federation wasn’t even ready to pay that little expense.


How the government is helping the team?

It’s the government’s responsibility to spiritually and financially support the women’s swimming team, provide facilities and take part in their empowerment in order for them to work for the country’s development.


Is the scenario and approach towards gender equality is changing in Afghanistan?  Do you think your swimming passion will contribute positively in this matter?

There has been little progress in terms of gender equality over the past years but even that little progress has been made possible thanks to some international organizations working in this regard with extreme care. The result of which we witness in our society – the mentality of some youths has change and men themselves encourage and give hope to female swimmers. I broke taboos to be a positive model and a supporter of removing gender discrimination and altering men’s perspective of women in the society.


Please tell us your views on the women leadership & providing her with equal opportunities?

Women same as men have the right to participate in society, to work, sport, decide for herself and to be a leader. This is my message to other women, especially for Muslim countries that we should select our own path and make our own life. What we do is not against any religion.

Please tell us your future plans?

As head of the women’s swimming committee in Afghanistan, I want to be given full authority to develop my swimming team. I also look forward to external financial support for women’s swimming in Afghanistan.


What is your message to women out there who are struggling to prove themselves especially those from other Muslim countries?

My only message to the girls like myself, living with restrictions, is not to lose hope, be persistent on your goal and if you fail once, try new paths to reach it.


We The Womenz team thank her for sharing her story with us. We are sure that her story will certainly inspire our readers.


Helena can be reached on Linked-in, Facebook & instagram

First Published: 30-Apr-2017- 15:13