Norwegian starts ski school for girls in Afghanistan
M. Michael Brady
Flying home to Norway from a visit to Kabul in 2009, Henriette Bjørge, then an assistant on the staff of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Oslo, looked down on the snow-clad mountains of the Hindu Kush Range of Central Asia. As an enthusiastic skier, she wondered if it might be possible to start a ski school for girls somewhere there.
The thought persisted and became a challenge that she worked into the backdrop of her career in international relations and diplomacy. In 2013, she was back in Afghanistan as an educational consultant for the Aga Khan Foundation in the province of Bamyan, where she became a ski instructor for Afghan youth. She felt that even in a male–dominated country, girls could not be excluded. So she started a separate ski school for girls and an annual female ski race.
She was not alone in her fascination with skiing in Afghanistan. In 2010, Swiss journalist Christoph Zuercher initiated The Afghan Ski Challenge ski race. Obviously, Afghanistan has the potential of becoming a skiing destination, provided the ongoing turmoil quiets. So skiing may have a longer-range mission that could start with its being accepted as a part of the local culture. Henriette Bjørge’s ski school clearly had a worthy long-term goal.
Acceptance required cultural conformance. Though impractical as seen with Western eyes, the girls’ ski clothing had to conform to traditional clothing codes. Bjørge herself dressed accordingly when skiing. Husbands, fathers, and brothers watched the first lesson to assure themselves that skiing wasn’t dangerous.
Today, Bjørge is a Communications and Advocacy Officer for UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women at its offices in Islamabad, Pakistan. Her ski school initiative continues, not least, as she remarks, “as a much sought break in an otherwise difficult daily life. And not least as an opening for women’s lib in a patriarchal society.”
Further reading: Original article Operasjon skiglede (“Operation Joy of Skiing”), cover story, A-Magsinet #15, April 12, 2017, pages 73-78; online version: Skifelste Henriette Bjørge var klar for en utfordring: Hun startet skiskole for jenter i Afghanistan by Mads Drange, April 13, 2017, link: www.aftenposten.no/amagasinet/Skifrelste-Henriette-Bjorge-var-klar-for-en-utfordring-Hun-startet-skiskole-for-jenter-i-Afghanistan-618221b.html
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