By Sayed Hassib
KABUL, March 8 (Reuters) - In Kabul's national sports stadium, two young women fencers take guard, their faces covered with protective wire masks as they stand off warily, foils circling before they thrust at their opponent.
In a country where women generally have a tough time practising sport, it takes special dedication to put in the hours needed to do well, all the more so in a sport like fencing, which few Afghans had even heard about 15 years ago.
"Everyone has a goal and my goal is to improve through this sport of fencing," said 18-year-old Fariha Alizada, a member of the Afghan national fencing team set up just two years ago.
"Sport is not only reserved for men, women can also do it and have the right to learn knowledge," she said.
Although public attitudes have shifted since the Taliban's brand of hardline Islamist rule was ended more than 15 years ago, many people in Afghanistan still disapprove of women and girls taking part in activities outside the home.
Such attitudes have severely limited the opportunities for those who want to get involved in sports.
While indoor sports like fencing or martial arts, which leave the body entirely covered, are easier than others like swimming or running, it requires determination to keep going in the face of widespread prejudice.
"Whenever women and girls go out, men keep harassing them and usually they use bad words for girls," said 16-year-old Arghawan Alizada.
"Because of all these issues, girls can't dare to go out, although we ignore these challenges and problems."
The girls' trainer, Yaqeen Haqiqat, said the sport, which only came to Afghanistan in 2004, was expensive, with equipment and proper gym facilities in short supply. But he had big ambitions for his charges.
"I've worked with the girls to make them better and I hope they can win medals for Afghanistan," he said. (Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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