Hanifa Yousoufi was married off at 15 to an abusive man. They eventually divorced and she was left to fend for herself in a rigidly patriarchal society – writes Katherine Hafner.
Earlier this month, the now-24-year-old became the first Afghan woman to summit her country’s tallest mountain. And she made it there with help from a Norfolk-based nonprofit.
Yousoufi reached the summit of Noshaq on Aug. 10 after nearly a month of climbing. At 24,580 feet, it’s the highest point in Afghanistan and the second-highest peak in the Hindu Kush range.
She was part of a team led by Ascend: Leadership Through Athletics, which trains and supports Afghan women using mountain climbing to teach leadership.
Marina LeGree started it in 2014 after five years in Afghanistan doing development work. She’d heard about two Afghan men who made it to the top of Noshaq in 2009 and thought the country’s women, who are largely barred from outdoor athletic activity in their society, should get a chance.
She was in Norfolk helping train Marines set to deploy to Afghanistan when she gave up her income and started the nonprofit.
Ascend has worked with about 60 women and accepts as many as 20 each year, said LeGree, who lives in Arlington. The nonprofit has a handful of employees in Norfolk and a network of volunteers in the U.S. and Afghanistan.
Yousoufi came to the program a few years ago after escaping her husband, LeGree said.
“Unfortunately it’s a very common situation that Afghan women face,” she said. “She’s a divorcee in a country where that’s totally just taboo. Her life prospects (were) basically over” at 17.
Ascend does not reveal identifying details of the women it works with for that reason, but Yousoufi chose to use her full name, LeGree said, because she is proud of her accomplishment.
Three years ago, when Yousoufi and the team began training, she couldn’t do a situp or a pushup, LeGree said. But she went home to practice the first night and was able to do the exercises the next day.
“She worked so hard,” LeGree said.
In mid-July, Yousoufi and others in the Ascend program set out to scale Noshaq. It was a $30,000 expedition fully funded by the nonprofit, half from a single donor.
It was a challenge right from the start because of “some pretty serious fighting” between Taliban forces and the Afghan Army near where the team aimed to land – the only way in was on a charter plane that serves humanitarian groups. They ended up rerouting to a different airstrip and had to drive an extra 13 hours.
Then came the journey itself – two other women turned back before the top due to worse-than-expected icy conditions. On the last day, darkness approached but Yousoufi pushed through. She summited about 6:30 p.m.
“It shines a spotlight on what these girls are capable of,” LeGree said. “It really does defy cultural norms.”
She said Ascend is not stopping anytime soon and plans to build “strong people inside and out.”
They’ll likely hit Noshaq again next year.
(*Read original article in The Virginian-Pilot, Aug 20, 2018 HERE.)