HERAT, 16 May (IRIN) - Gold's Gym is one of the most popular spots for women in the western Afghan city of Herat. The first female sports centre to open in this conservative city, it is spearheading a small revolution in women's leisure and fitness.
"I could never imagine a place like this while I was [weight] training secretly in my house. But all that has come true and I am now one of the fittest body builders in our club," said Marzia, 25, sporting muscled arms and a toned body, while pumping iron with a dozen other women.
The facility, open for nearly two years, seems at odds with a country where, just five years ago under the hard line Taliban regime, women were not allowed to work, study or even leave their homes without an all-enveloping burqa gown and an accompanying male relative.
The situation in Herat did not improve much for women after the Taliban, as former governor and Mujaheddin fighter Ismail Khan - not known for his liberal views - ruled the city with an iron fist until he was replaced in September 2004.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a 2002 report on western Afghanistan, said that Ismail Khan had censored women's groups, intimidated outspoken female leaders and sidelined women from his administration.
But since Khan's departure the city has experienced a renaissance for women - with cafes, driving schools and sports clubs appearing to cater for female clients in a society where sexual segregation is the norm.
"First it was so difficult to convince my family to let me attend a bodybuilding club. But now they are proud of me and understand that it's my right," Marzai grinned.
The mushrooming of women's sports facilities in Herat is good news for the country's fledgling Olympic movement. "Now we have more than 700 women in eight bodybuilding clubs," Ziaulhaq Zia, deputy head of Herat's Olympic sports department, said.
According to the department, two additional female clubs - for volleyball and basketball - opened this year in the ancient city. There is also demand for hockey, football and baseball from Herat's women, according to Zia.
"Sports facilities are a big step towards the improvement of women's rights in our country. Women should come out of their homes and take part in social activities," Sima Sher Mohammady, head of Herat province women's affairs department, said.