For Women in Kabul, ‘It Is Just Me and the Water’

KABUL, Afghanistan — When Fatema Saeedi is in the pool, she cannot hear the crowded, chaotic noise of the city around her. She does not think about suicide bombings or Taliban attacks. She concentrates on her breathing as she moves through the water. One hand in front of the other. Exhale.

For Ms. Saeedi, 26, the swimming pool is a refuge. The clean water, the walls and the women around her — all sealed off from the male patrons nearby — are a welcome respite from Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

Though the city has become markedly more politically progressive in the nearly two decades it has been governed by a Western-backed democracy, Kabul is still steeped in a socially conservative Afghan culture that often relegates women to hidden or subjugated roles.

“In Kabul, women can’t go anywhere,” Ms. Saeedi said recently as she finished a swim. “But here, I don’t have to cover up and pretend anything. I am just myself.”

The sport, though growing in popularity among both men and women, is inherently a niche one for the landlocked country. From 1996 to 2001, when Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, the Sunni hard-line group severely restricted many recreational activities and banned women altogether from sports, most jobs and public education.

The first pool to open in Kabul under the Taliban was in May 2001, just months before the American-backed invasion, in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, ousted the group from the country. The men-only pool was on the grounds of the Intercontinental Hotel.

Since then, 23 public and private pools have appeared in Kabul, a city of nearly five million people, but only two allow women, said Ihsan Taheri, the former head of Afghanistan’s swimming federation.

One of those pools, Amu, is in western Kabul, and is partially owned by the Red Cross. It has a large, Olympic-size pool for men, with an adjoining snack bar.

The women’s pool is accessible from a different entrance, which leads to a basement that is notably dirtier and a third the size of the men’s area. To enter, women have to lock up their cellphones, as any picture-taking in the swimming area is strictly prohibited. The Times was given special permission by both the pool and the swimmers to photograph inside.

At the women’s pool, there is no snack bar, just a collection of tables where women can eat food ordered and delivered, in a complicated segregated exchange, from the male side.

And pool membership costs more than it does for the men.

Still, Ms. Saeedi said, “When I come here, I forget about everything else.”

“It is just me and the water, and it is safe,” she added.

Ms. Saeedi learned how to swim as a child in the Sangi Masha, a river that cuts through the hills near her rural childhood home in the country’s southeastern Ghazni Province. After she moved to Kabul to attend university and study radiology, finding time to swim was last on her list of priorities.

But in the last few months, Ms. Saeedi has found her way back to the water, even though it is often a two-hour drive from her house and nearly too expensive. But, she said, “underwater is a different world.”

Helena Saboori, the director of the female committee at the country’s swimming federation, said there has been increased interest in the sport since the two women’s pools opened.

Amu opened four years ago. The other women-only pool, small and private, opened last year in the middle of the city. The pool is named after a former Afghan Queen, Soraya Tarzi, who pushed for women’s rights in the country in the 1920s.

“The society has changed and that is why women can go swimming a bit more openly,” Ms. Saboori said.

The Amu pool costs $75 a month for women, about $20 more than their male counterparts. That means only well-to-do people can afford to join; a typical unskilled laborer in Afghanistan earns barely $4 a day.

When asked why the difference in price, one of the pool’s managers, Mohamed Rahim, said the women’s pool and locker room cost more for upkeep because female swimmers sometimes wear makeup that dirties the water.

There are also less of them, Mr. Rahim said, meaning that the financial overhead for changing the water has to be covered by the existing membership.

But, he added, the pool is working to lower the price.

Mr. Rahim doesn’t know the exact number of women who come a day. It often varies — anywhere between 15 and 70 — and the pool has no database to track attendance.

Women swim from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The men’s pool is also open during those hours, but they are also allowed to swim at night.

The stuttering economy and the declining security in the capital has certainly affected business, Mr. Rahim said, for both men and women.

“When we first opened and started allowing women to swim, we also received many threats,” Mr. Rahim said.

Arezo Hassanzada, 28, is an aquatic trainer at Amu. Four years ago, when the pool first opened, she came looking for a job as a front-desk receptionist.

“Since I was a kid, I wanted to learn how to swim, but there was no place to go and learn,” she said. After watching women come to the pool, she soon hopped into the water alongside them.

Now, she sometimes sits poolside, helping other women into an array of yellow and brown life jackets before they enter the water for their first time.

Outside the rhythmic splashing and laughing inherent to Amu’s confines is the looming possibility that the Taliban could someday come back, whether through a peace deal with the United States or otherwise. And if it does, the group would almost certainly try to bring an end to the growing sport.

The fear was palpable last July, when Taliban rockets struck in Amu’s neighborhood, wounding at least seven people. Ms. Hassanzada was overseeing a pool-full of women when she heard the explosions and quickly shepherded them out of the water.

“I thought to myself maybe our customers won’t come back,” Ms. Hassanzada said. “But the next morning they did.”