The Secret Marathon: Local filmmaker tells the courageous story of a group of Afghan women running for their freedom

Kate McKenzie travelled to Afghanistan in 2016 to tell the story of the brave women training in secret to run in the country’s marathon while reclaiming space for their gender in the country.

By Krista Sylvester | August 26, 2021 |7:00 am

Afghanistan despite death threats and danger. Right, local filmmaker Kate McKenzie who told the story of the women fighting for gender equality in Afghanistan by running a marathon.

Photo: The Secret Marathon // Submitted

This documentary may have been in production since 2016, but it’s more important than ever to share this story now.

Local filmmaker Kate McKenzie co-directed and produced the documentary The Secret Marathon after reading an article in The Guardian newspaper about the first Afghan woman who stood up for her freedom to run in the Marathon of Afghanistan despite all the risks she faced — and there were many.

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“Zainab was endeavouring to run in the Marathon of Afghanistan for the first time. When she wanted to go outside and train for the marathon, she had people throwing rocks at her, calling her terrible names,” McKenzie explains.

“She was even receiving threats on her phone from terrorist organizations — just for going for a run.”

A movement that hasn’t stopped.

Zainab ended up sparking a movement for equality that evolved. When McKenzie started filming, there were six women participating in the marathon. The year after it doubled and then it doubled again. Now — about 60% of the athletes are female.

“It’s actually pretty incredible to see that not only are the women participating but there’s also men that are choosing to participate alongside women.”

The event has grown from 100 participants in the first year to 800 last year.

Zainab’s story inspired legendary marathon runner, Martin Parnell — who is from Cochrane — to run in the Marathon of Afghanistan the following year to support Zainab, partnering with filmmaker and first-time marathoner McKenzie, to tell the story.

As McKenzie explains, they had to travel to Afghanistan and train in secret to avoid making the marathon the target for a terrorist attack.

“Zainab actually trained in a small enclosed courtyard, about the size of a one-bedroom apartment… and she was running in 42.2 kilometres worth of loops in such a small space,” she says.

“And I just couldn’t get that image out of my head.”

It also spoke to a much broader issue.

“This woman wasn’t just running because she wanted to be the next Olympic athlete. She was running because she saw sport as a way to reclaim space for women, to say that women deserve the right to be able to run and move their bodies in public.”

Changing times.

The film uncovered unexpected beauty, incredible hardships, and amazing people who stood for change, but it was also filmed before the Taliban overtook control of the country this month.  

McKenzie says it’s hard to watch as the heartbreaking and dangerous situation unfolds in Afghanistan

“Everything that’s happening in Afghanistan right now is heartbreaking,” McKenzie says, adding she was blown away by the generosity and hospitality of the people there and the beauty of the country itself.

“To see it go back under Taliban control is awful. And for the women and men that have been working on issues of gender equality, especially those in sport, they’re facing double the challenge now.”

It’s no longer safe for the Afghan people to host or participate in these kinds of events.

“They are now targets. Because they have spoken out publicly about gender equality, they are now being targeted by the Taliban. Their lives are at risk, and they are in danger. They are my friends; I am very worried about them.”

How can you help?

McKenzie and the team behind the film had a drive-in fundraiser last week to raise awareness and funds for the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan (CW4WA) charity, which collected over $3,000 for the organization.

“I believe in the power of film and the power of story is to help us to reimagine a different kind of future. And I hope that when people see this film, that it allows them to see what could be possible in Afghanistan,” McKenzie says.

“It could indeed be a country that is no longer known for war and poverty, and terrorism, but rather a country with this great marathon. One of our goals is that we hope to allow people to reimagine a different future for Afghanistan.”

McKenzie adds that it’s not safe in many parts of the world for women to go for a run or a walk outside.

“And that’s not okay. This is a basic human right. And every woman, every girl deserves to be able to go for a run or walk in her community.”

People can still donate towards CW4WA, which is doing what it can to help the ongoing situation in Afghanistan. People can also request to host  The Secret Marathon movie event in their own community.

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Krista Sylvester

Reporter at Calgary Citizen

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