When the judoka competed in Athens, her father and one of her brothers told her it was as if she had taken the “first step on the moon.”
It wasn’t just a special moment for Rezayee: it was a momentous moment for women across Afghanistan. The judoka was now a symbol for a society that, although far from perfect, was finally changing.
But now the Taliban has returned to power in Afghanistan and Rezayee fears that the progress that has been made for women’s lives over the last 20 years will be lost.
Taliban leaders have recently expressed their commitment to a “blanket amnesty” for all in Afghanistan, including members of the Afghan military and interpreters, but Rezayee says the future will be bleak for women in the country.
“After they [the Taliban] settle down, they have their government established, they will go after the individuals who spoke against them,” Rezayee, 33, told CNN Sport.
“Women who went to school, women who went to universities and women who played sports.”
Since the Taliban swept into the capital of Kabul, Rezayee says the women she works with now fear for their lives.
“I’m in contact with them every day. They send me heartbreaking messages,” she said.
“Recently, the Afghan female athletes visited the dojo (judo training gym). They held each other’s hands. They hugged each other. They also kissed the mats because that was the last time they’re going to see them and that was the last day of their freedom.
“They’re also sending me messages, pleading for their life, for their safety. All these women leaders or human rights, women’s rights activists want to flee the country. They want to flee the Taliban for obvious reasons.”
‘A movement for freedom, for liberty, for life’
Rezayee says she still remembers the brutality and oppression of the Taliban’s “unimaginable” regime.
She fled to Pakistan with her family after the start of the group’s first rule in 1996 but returned after the US invasion in 2001 and set about making the most of newfound freedoms.
It was as a refugee in Pakistan that Rezayee says she fell in love with boxing.
She remembers watching heavyweight champion Mike Tyson on a small crackling TV screen and being inspired by Laila Ali, the daughter of sporting legend Muhammad Ali.
“I fell in love with how powerful Laila Ali was, what an icon she was. I wanted to do the same thing,” says Rezayee.
On her return to Afghanistan, she enrolled at an all-girls school and started training with a boxing coach, feeling empowered by the sport.
“The last two decades, Afghan women worked so hard, they had so many achievements,” she said.
“Women went to school, they had careers. Women ran for office, women ran businesses — you name it — the Afghan women did.”
Except not all sections of Afghan society were ready to accept these freedoms for women.
Rezayee says she started to receive death threats and her coach eventually said it was too dangerous to keep training. The coach put her in touch with another trainer, who introduced her to judo.
With the help of a charity, she fell in love with the martial arts discipline and trained alongside two other girls — the only women in the entire country to compete in judo, she says.
“It was a milestone for us and a significant moment,” Rezayee added.
“[It was] very dangerous because the society was not ready to see female athletes at that time because they were just finishing and just coming out of the dark regime of the Taliban.
“It was extremely dangerous, but I would train hard. I did not care about the social stigma, what my relatives and the society…said.
“I believed in myself and I believed in the other girls and I believed in the sport.”
After competing locally, Rezayee was eventually selected to represent her country at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
She was one of only two Afghan women to compete in Greece — the other being 100m sprinter Robina Muqim Yaar — but the scheduling of the judo and track and field events ensured Rezayee was the first woman to step into official competition, she says.
She faced a four-time world champion from Spain and lost in the first round but nonetheless made an indelible mark on Afghanistan’s history.
“I did not win. I was very sad, I was heartbroken. I called my father and my older brother back in Afghanistan and said that I was so sorry I didn’t win, I let you down,” she said.
“But my father and one of my brothers said: ‘Don’t worry, you didn’t win, but you made history.'”
However, on her return to Afghanistan, Rezayee says she was forced into hiding for a few months.
She said fundamentalists in the country “wanted her dead” and that she also feared for the safety of her family.
After a family tragedy in 2005, Rezayee fled to Pakistan again before finally seeking refuge in Canada in 2011.
She has not returned to her beloved country since 2013 but has no regrets about her decision to represent Afghan women on the global stage.
“I wanted to show the patriarchy in Afghanistan that women are equal (to) men and they can participate,” she said.
“And I also wanted the women’s competition, women’s sports, women’s rights to be very normal in the eyes of the patriarchy and other people and also to show to the world that there are women in Afghanistan and they play sport.”
‘We will become a resistance group’
Watching the news unfold over the last few days has devastated Rezayee, and she says she is frightened of what this regime will do.
Despite their public pronouncements, she doesn’t believe that the Taliban have changed and called on world leaders to topple the newly formed regime.
More positively, she believes there is still a chance that women can represent Afghanistan at future Olympic Games. She is working on a project to send Afghan women judokas to Paris in 2024 and called on the world’s sporting governing bodies to assist Afghan athletes.
In a statement to CNN, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it was “monitoring the situation and is in contact with the sport community in Afghanistan.”
“At the same time, we have forwarded relevant information to a number of responsible governments. For obvious reasons of security of concerned people, we would not comment further at this stage,” the statement continued.
CNN has also contacted the Afghan Olympic Committee but has yet to receive a response.
Despite the chaos and traumatic pictures coming from the country this week, Rezayee still has hope.
That, she says, is something the Taliban can never take away from the women of Afghanistan.
“My message to Afghan women in Afghanistan right now is to stay strong. This is a nightmare, but nightmares don’t last very long,” she said.
“We will make this through. If nothing else, we will become a resistance group. We will fight for our rights no matter what.
“Once, we lost our rights in the 1990s — we are not going to let that happen again. Stay strong. Stay in touch. Also stay very intelligent.
“I believe in peace. Peace, prosperity and human rights will prevail.
“Everybody’s dying for peace.”
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