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In Former Taliban Stronghold, Defiant Women Hit the Gym

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Homa Yusafzai felt terrible. Her weight was up, she had diabetes and high blood pressure, and at just 27 she felt lethargic and depressed.

Then she heard that Kandahar’s first health club for women had just opened — the miracle she had been waiting for, she thought. Her husband at first refused to let her join. Kandahar is a deeply conservative city, a former headquarters of the Taliban where men still dictate the most prosaic details of women’s lives.

But ultimately, he relented, and Ms. Yusafzai now works out six days a week, straining through hand-weight repetitions and pounding a treadmill. In six months, she said, she had shed almost 50 pounds, lowered her blood pressure and brought her diabetes under control.

“I feel so healthy and I have more energy — I’m so happy,” she said as she rested between workouts.

The health club was opened late last year by Maryam Durani, 36, an indomitable women’s rights advocate who has survived two suicide bombings, an assassination attempt and countless death threats — not to mention harsh public condemnation for opening the club.

It is rare for Afghan women to exercise, though several women’s health clubs and even two women’s swimming pools have opened in Kabul, the capital. But in conservative strongholds like Kandahar, many men disapprove of women trying to take control of their own bodies.

“Kandahar is a very difficult environment for women,” Ms. Durani said. “We have to be careful and discreet.”

She added: “The club is as much for women’s mental health as their physical health. Almost every woman who comes here is depressed.”

Roughly 40 percent of club members exercise secretly, hiding workouts from their families, Ms. Durani said. Membership had dropped from 60 in the spring to 30 now, because of a three-month coronavirus closure and because some women feared their families would discover their secret workouts.

“My father and brothers said they would kill me if I went to a health club,” said one gym member, who asked to be identified only by her nickname, Tamana.

Tamana, 33, was dressed in white robes traditionally worn for studying the Quran at a madrasa — the excuse she gives her family for leaving home to exercise at the club two hours a day, six days a week. She changes into workout clothes at the gym, hitting the treadmill, stationary bike and hand weights.

“I’m not doing anything wrong or shameful,” Tamana said. “In fact, it’s something that’s made me a happier and healthier person.”

But the gym is constantly in jeopardy. Soon after it opened, it was deluged with