For Afghanistan-born Zahra Arabzada ’15, running isn’t just an outlet for exercise; it’s an outlet for activism.
As part of an effort to encourage other Muslim women to pursue a healthy lifestyle and to challenge misconceptions of Muslims by other groups, Zahra is spending her summer training for a 38-mile road race in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on Sept. 16.
“One of the biggest realizations I have had in life was hearing and truly accepting that women are actually capable of running or having the same rights as men,” said Zahra, now a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Recently she joined the Afghanistan-based Free to Run (F2R) organization, whose mission is “to use running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate women and girls who have been affected by conflict.”
The idea to encourage other Hijabi women to exercise has been on Zahra’s mind ever since she started running as a sixth-former on the St. George’s cross-country team. A college fellowship is helping her realize her dream. This year Zahra was one of just two students to receive the Cohen Fellowship from the Centennial Leadership Center at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “The fellowship is basically a way for me to work on my own project, which I have been thinking about and designing since I started running at SG,” she said.
She has three objectives for the project: to maintain a blog about her training, to speak at various sports clubs and events, and to work with organizations within her hometown of Konduz in northern Afghanistan.
Zahra came to St. George’s after having attended the School of Leadership Afghanistan in Kabul, which was created to promote gender equality in the nation. Through the school she connected with Marian Smith ’76 and began to think about attending boarding school in the United States. Her early schooling was kept a secret from neighbors in her hometown – as well as many of her relatives because Afghan girls are discouraged from pursuing a formal education.
“Running is a means to address some of the topics that are hard to address — and will make the conversation easier,” she said.