Young athletes in flowing head scarves bob and weave, jabbing the stale air of their darkened training room here at Ghazi National Olympic Stadium.
A cracked mirror on the wall reflects the line of female figures in red Puma tracksuits punching, sidestepping and hopping across the worn red and green mats at their coach's command.
"Change! Change! Change!" shouts Mohammad Sabir Sharifi.
Sharifi, 52, checks his watch: 3:15 p.m. His team of Olympic hopefuls has just started practice, but in only an hour they must be escorted home for their own safety.
"Breathe," he tells them.
For four years, about 20 women and girls, 12 to 22, have been meeting like this, an hour at a time, three days a week, beneath the stadium where the Taliban once publicly executed women accused of adultery.
In 1996, the Taliban banned all women's sports as a violation of Islamic law, the same year it barred women from most jobs. Four years later, the Afghan Olympic team, which had competed at the Summer Games since 1936, was excluded from the Sydney Games because of the Taliban's prohibitions on sports and discrimination against women. Now Sharifi hopes his team will show the world the new face of Afghanistan at the 2012 London Olympics, the first to include women's boxing.
But that face is often difficult to envision in a culture where girls are pressured to quit school and marry young. With the U.S. scheduled to begin withdrawing forces from the country in July, it is not clear how much support will remain for women undertaking nontraditional pursuits. Their boxing days may be fleeting.
Fatima Rahimi, 20, wearing a white hijab, or head covering, braces a punching bag and instructs a teammate on the finer points of executing a left uppercut. On the walls around her, Afghan boxers beam in photographs, arms raised in Rocky-style triumph, all of them male.
Why does she box?
"I should be able to defend myself," she says, but does not have time to say against what before Sharifi calls for a new round of drills.
The clock above the broken mirror reads 3:45 p.m.
The boxing team, "Fighting for Peace," was started by several male coaches and boxing stars with support from the Afghan nonprofit Cooperation for Peace and Unity and the international nonprofit Oxfam. In 2007, the coaches also founded the Afghan Amateur Women Boxing Assn. under the auspices of the Afghan Olympic Federation.
Sharifi, who started boxing in 1980 and fought on the national team for eight years, said he wanted to develop a women's team to counter the image of the submissive, burka-clad Afghan woman. He is training young women to become not only powerful, strategic boxers, but also leaders of a new Afghanistan. A few times a year, the women attend workshops sponsored by Cooperation for Peace and Unity about promoting peace and conflict resolution.
Rahimi and her two younger sisters box. They have always been both athletic and religious and never saw that as a contradiction. When their high school gym teacher told them about the new boxing program, they begged their father, a taxi driver, for permission to join. Their parents were supportive even though they worried that the girls could get hurt. They got over that pretty quickly, Rahimi said.
Then came the threats.
Last year, a stranger called their house to deliver a warning.
"You're not supposed to let your daughters go to boxing," the man said.
Other female boxers had been threatened, but never harmed. Still, their father was so frightened that he kept the girls home from school and did not allow them to return to practice until Sharifi called to reassure him.
Sharifi, too, has received threats. That is the old Afghanistan, he says. He has no time to worry. He has to get the Rahimi sisters, among the few female fighters with enough talent and training to make it to the next Olympics, ready for upcoming tournaments that could qualify them for London.
Sharifi summons Shabnam Rahimi, 18 and about 5 feet tall, to spar with him in front of the team. He considers her an exemplary fighter: disciplined and proud.
She does not flinch when she faces off against the coach, a trim Telly Savalas look-alike nearly a foot taller than she is. Instead, she keeps her large brown eyes locked on him, gloves up, sweat rolling off her brow and into her curly black hair as she works her cross.
Normally, Shabnam and the other women do not wear scarves under their headgear during bouts, although they do wear more modest dress than other boxers, including long pants, which the International Boxing Assn. last year ruled permissible, along with head scarves, at the Olympics.
Shabnam and the others almost always wear scarves in practice. No one forces her but she has read the Koran, she says, and believes it is her duty as a Muslim woman to be modest. Today, though, she forgot her extra boxing scarf at home. With no time to find a substitute, she is boxing bareheaded, black ponytail curling down her back as an Afghan television crew films over her shoulder.
Her younger sister Sadaf, 17, and a teammate were scheduled to compete at the AIBA International Boxing Assn. Women's Junior/Youth World Boxing Championships in Antalya, Turkey, the following week. Sadaf, who is finishing 12th grade, traveled to Istanbul to train. She called home to tell her sisters about the fancy Turkish training facility, equipment and coaches. Sadaf and her teammate eventually lost their matches against opponents from Vietnam and the Maldives.
As she practices, Shabnam can't help noticing the shabby boxing bags, gloves and hand wraps. The women receive a weekly stipend but it is not enough to buy new punching bags or build a boxing ring. Still, she knows the rundown facility is not a slight to the women: The country's three men's boxing teams train in the same place and with the same equipment.
Sharifi talks about moving his team to a new $200,000 training facility, complete with boxing ring, that the Afghanistan Boxing Federation is building nearby. But the ring might not open in time for the Rahimi sisters.
They are not Sharifi's first proteges. Shala Sekandari, 20, with her powerful left uppercut, won a lightweight bronze medal at the Asian indoor games in Vietnam in 2009 and was on track to qualify for the Olympics. Then three months ago she got married.
Sharifi says Sekandari will help coach the team. Fatima Rahimi just shakes her head.
"She is married," she says. "She is not coming anymore."
Fatima is not engaged, yet. She has been studying medicine, but was considering switching to pursue a degree in literature. But she does not rule out getting married soon. And if she does, she too may quit boxing.
"It depends on my future husband," she says with a shy smile. "If he wants me to continue, I will."
Shabnam is more determined. She idolizes not just Laila Ali but Laila's father, the great Muhammad Ali, the way he once floated, light on his feet, too fast for the blows to find him.
Shabnam is quick, too, but knows the sting of a connecting punch and the damage it can do. When she competed with Sekandari in Vietnam, she was beaten by a stronger opponent. During practice, she has twice broken the middle finger on her left hand. Pain will not make her quit.
"Even if I lose my nose, I will keep coming to boxing," she says as girls behind her jump rope and yank off sweaty black gloves to rewrap their hands.
"Stop," says the coach.
It is past 4 p.m. Time is up.
One of the men's boxing teams arrives and the women exit quickly. They speed down the long stone corridor to the locker room, where they trade sneakers and T-shirts for street clothes: rhinestone-edged heels and metal-studded sandals, blue jeans and gilded head scarves.
Outside, a driver waits to take them home.
Shabnam emerges with a friend, Seyamoi Seamoy, 18, both wearing backpacks. Arm in arm, the boxers make their way past the eerie calm of the stadium where women were once stoned and shot as they cowered in their burkas. At the stadium gates, adorned with a rainbow of Olympic rings, they pass a pair of Afghan soldiers in flak jackets keeping watch with a machine gun.
The pair are too busy giggling to notice, spilling out their dreams of becoming a journalist and a doctor. They will be back again on Monday.
"We work for the future," Sharifi says, "because the past is lost."
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.