A Safe Space in Kabul for Women to Work Out Together
This female-only yoga studio provides sanctuary, confidence and camaraderie.
"Points of Play" is a series spotlighting the places where sport brings communities together.
Step inside Momtaz Yoga Center in Kabul, Afghanistan, and you'll be momentarily transported away from the city's constant violence and male-dominated spaces. With its spaciousness, many plants and floor-to-ceiling windows, it feels like you're in a typical urban yoga studio—but there's so much more to it than that.
"I don't feel this comfortable ... even in my own house".
Women eagerly approach the door to attend the first in-person group class since the coronavirus pandemic forced the studio to close nearly five months before.
Owner and instructor Fakhria Momtaz welcomes student Farida Esmati back with a hug—as if nothing has changed. "I don't feel this comfortable and peaceful in another space, even in my own house", Farida whispers in Fakhria's ear. "So happy to be back, sister". It took Farida several weeks to gather the courage to visit the studio for the first time two years ago, but since then, she's been a regular. "Yoga saved me", she says. "It pulled me out of depression, gave me confidence and taught me that I need to care for myself. Every time I come here, I feel like a newborn, a free bird, relieved, with no pain in my body and my mind".
Fakhria, who turned to yoga after a desk job left her with neck and back pain, begins class, guiding the students to remain present, focus on their breath and move through the flow of poses confidently. "I started teaching yoga to bring inner peace and security to the hearts and minds of women", she says. It's no easy mission. Only months ago, she had to go into hiding after receiving death threats when photos of her leading an outdoor yoga class in southwest Kabul to celebrate the International Day of Yoga went viral. She says the increasing influence of the Taliban alarms her—but that doesn't mean it will stop her. "Even if I have to leave my homeland again, I will continue my fight for the well-being of women and our rights in Afghanistan", she says.
While the women move through sun salutations, Jafar Hoseini (left) and Habib Jawid look after their daughters in the waiting area so their wives can tune into the present moment and tune out whatever they're trying to escape from. It's more than babysitting—it's a signal of a gradual societal shift in Kabul.
Sometimes the children—like two-year-old Asna—sneak into class to get a peek of their mothers in action, making the space feel more like the home of a large family than a workout studio. "A safe place for women to exercise did not exist in Kabul for my mother", says Fakhria. "I hope that my efforts and this studio will pave the way for [the next] generation".
Since its establishment in 2016, the space—which Fakhria and her husband, Reza Momtaz, started on the premises of an IT company they own—has become a sanctuary for more than 500 women. Her studio is not the first in the country, but she believes it's the first to go public. "We need to show another real face of Afghanistan—a positive one", she says. And she has big plans to take this message beyond the walls of her studio. Currently, the Momtazes are developing an app that will make yoga accessible for every Afghan, especially women who are unable to leave their homes.
When savasana ends, the women don't leave. Instead, they gather to chat over watermelon. It's another way Momtaz Yoga Studio goes above and beyond a typical yoga space—and, really, any space in Kabul—offering a safe environment that encourages women to think and act freely. One regular asks first-timer Zarifa what class was like for her. "I was transported elsewhere", she replies, "to a world that was happy and peaceful". And with that, the sun sets behind the building, and the women return home a little happier and more hopeful than when they arrived.
Words and Photography: Kiana Hayeri
Reported: August 2020