The Afghan Yoga Teacher in Exile
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Until the Taliban recaptured power in Afghanistan, Fakhria Momtaz was the country's best-known yoga teacher running a popular yoga studio in Kabul. Now with the Taliban enforcing harsh sharia laws, Momtaz has had to shut her studio and flee to neighbouring Pakistan. She spoke to Global Order's Aayushi Sharma from Islamabad.
Fakhria Momtaz in yogic posture in Kabul in happier times.
Fakhria Momtaz fell in love with yoga, the ancient Indian art and philosophy of wholistic well-being, as a child. She was trained as a yoga instructor from the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (SVYASA) in Bangalore, India. Momtaz was hailed as the face of modern Afghanistan and was a voice of hope and peace at her studio in Kabul until the Taliban recaptured power in the country. In 2019, she told Global Order's sister platform Grin, "We don’t think Taliban would come to power as they were before but if they would come, they are compelled to accept us and the changes in society and it is in their own interest."
Now she is in exile in Islamabad in Pakistan, having fled Taliban rule like tens of thousands of other Afghans. Global Order's Aayushi Sharma spoke to her via telephone. This is Momtaz's first interview after fleeing her homeland. Edited excerpts.
Aayushi Sharma (AS): Before we start I just wanted to say that we are going to record this interview. So do I have your consent for it?
Fakhria Momtaz (FM): Yes, yes.
AS: Okay great! So we are doing a series of covering stories of women who have been dealing with conflict situations in conflict areas and also doing amazing work in the field of peace building or women's rights... like you are doing with your yoga instructions. So that is why we come to you.
FM: Thank you. Thank you so much to contact us and that is wonderful for us and I'm happy [sic]. One thing which is very, very interesting for me that, how could you find us, by researching or how could you find us?
AS: Through our other contacts, we got to know about you, your work. So we got your contact, your phone number and that's how I contacted you on WhatsApp.
FM: Yes. Thank you so much because it's been one year that everything is finished in Afghanistan. Exactly. And we have lost everything. And that's why, it was a wonder for me, how could you find us?!
AS: So that's exactly why I wanted to interview you, what is going on with the work now and how are you basically dealing with everything. You're in Pakistan, I understand. What is going on with your yoga instruction and your studio right now?
FM: Afghanistan has many conflicts and especially working as a woman for women, as I did. I opened a studio. I was a woman and opened a studio for women. And it was not easy. It was like a big risk. It was like a taboo. I can say that it was political issue. Unfortunately many, many limitations, many issues. Of course when the situation is critical, the victims are women. The, victims, the real victims of the situation in Afghanistan are always women.
Right now I'm living in Pakistan as a refugee after Taliban captured all over Afghanistan. I had to leave Afghanistan and my studio is closed now. The roots of yoga are in India, and many people see yoga [in Afghanistan] as a religious activity, religious action. Some even thought that I aspired to be in India, but was working in Afghanistan. These were the conflicts that I had. But I worked hard and was very conservative about my activities. And my studio was very attractive for the media - national and international, even Nike, there was a project between Nike and The New York Times that they selected me from Afghanistan. During the 'Me Too' movement, there was a project to highlight heroic women from around the world and they selected me from Afghanistan. And they covered my activities, my yoga sessions, my life, but in one year everything is finished. The world left us with a group of terrorists which is called Taliban.
AS: You received support from international agencies during the time your studio was functional, have those agencies offered any support now?
FM: I had my yoga studio in Afghanistan for four years. All the embassies who were involved in Afghanistan issues were really interested in my activity. They contacted me, they visited my yoga studio. For example, [people from] the embassy of Netherlands came to my yoga studio, the embassy of the US called me and appreciated my work. I am one of the alumni of the US embassy [as part of the International Visitors Leadership Programme run by the State Department].
I am in need of support today. It is not my life that I am living in Islamabad, without any future. If they support me, send me some countries to be a citizen. Today, I am a refugee. I am an illegal refugee. I don't have any visa. I don't have UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) card to be registered. So many difficulties I am facing here. And I think it's not right that all the countries who contacted me in Afghanistan, today they are forgetting me. Even, unfortunately, India. I didn't expect that India would not appreciate my work. Just one time that I applied for a sponsorship in India for a yoga teacher training. I think is worldwide project by Indian government. I applied for that and I succeeded. It was in 2020. But nothing today. When I say that I am a yoga instructor in Afghanistan and my life is in danger and it is difficult for me to live here or to work here, I think India can help me as an exception and give me a visa to travel to India.
AS: I can imagine how difficult this must be.
FM: Yes. It is very difficult. It's very difficult when you had many activities, a huge attention from all organizations, but today everyone has forgotten you. And you have lost everything, your home, your relationships, your people, your homeland and your life, your background, everything is finished and everything is lost today.
AS: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the impact you were having when you had your studio in Afghanistan. What kind of people came to you?
FM: You know, what is yoga? You know, what's the impact of yoga? Especially in a country which has a critical situation. There's violence on women. Suicides, losing families, many tragic stories in Afghanistan. When I had my sessions it was like a treatment for women. And it was the only chance for them to relax and have a comfortable environment. And I tried my best to make my environment trustworthy for my clients, for my students. But now many of my students are out of Afghanistan. Many of them are still stuck in Afghanistan but without any future and hope. Most of them were university students or some of them were working in offices, but today they're at home, a limitation built by the Taliban. And they are not fine. Most of them are, they are not fine. I try to have virtual classes with them, but unfortunately it is not easy. One thing is the problem of internet quality in Afghanistan. It doesn't work well. And most of them are not able to connect.
When I was working in Afghanistan, information about my work was all over the internet. Some people even commented sarcastically. When the Taliban came, these people commented on Facebook and other social media that "now it is good that Taliban came and that they are not able to do yoga and to open the studio. And they are not all able to have any interview with, with media". Once the Taliban came, I could never do another interview. So people forgot me. I even tried to contact the Indian government through the university where I studied in Bangalore. I asked them to help me. They tried but nothing has worked.
AS: I want to thank you once again for talking to us, and I also wanted to ask you about the Covid-19 pandemic period, how did you cope with that?
FM: Yes. Yes. I had graduated from yoga teacher training. And when I came to Afghanistan, it was the time that the quarantine had started in India and Afghanistan. I was trying to find how to overcome this issue. It is a disease, a pandemic disease, and we are yoga instructors, what is our responsibility? As Afghanistan has a low level economy, I told myself that I haven't opened my yoga studio for business. It was, like a social activity for me. I wanted to make the culture of how to know ourselves grow in Afghanistan, especially for women who are always victim of their family, victim of their men. They need to think about themselves. They need to love themselves. My aim was to support women to, to come to know themselves, to listen themselves. So I started free online yoga sessions for women. But it wasn't easy because of technical issues that women had. Most of them didn't access the internet, it was difficult to have the high quality of internet, but still many were joining me. Very lovely days. Some of them didn't know what yoga was - they did yoga with me for the first time, online. But they learned a lot. And was a very big impact for me. A big, big, achievement.
When the pandemic quarantine eased, they asked me for physical sessions. International yoga day, June 21st in 2020, was coming, and I said let's do our yoga sessions physically outside of yoga studio in open space. Sixty women registered and 20 came. There are many videos and photos from my open space yoga sessions from that time. When we finished our yoga sessions, many national and international media reported on us. Then, three fundamentalist religious leaders in Afghanistan threatened me. They called my yoga sessions 'haram' [or forbidden in Islamic law]. Do you know haram ? When your action is haram in Islam, you should be beheaded. They called my action haram, the work of a prostitute. It was very dangerous.
So I was stuck for two months at home and couldn't get out. And however, all the gyms and the studios in Afghanistan were open. It was like the quarantine was finished in Afghanistan, but I never couldn't open my yoga studio for two months. After two months I opened, but it was very limited. It was difficult for me to market my sessions as I did before. I used to share my schedule on social media to make my clients aware but now I was not able to do this. It was a limitation on my marketing, my work, my life. And I thought that it is not the time to live in Afghanistan. I decided to leave Afghanistan, but unfortunately because of the pandemic situation I was stuck in Afghanistan until Taliban came. When the Taliban came, within two weeks there was evacuation. I had to leave Afghanistan and came to Islamabad. Yes, sorry. It was this question about pandemic situation, but it ended with evacuation.
AS: Are you able to work now in Islamabad now?
FM: I am trying to start my yoga session again. It was a very, very big tragedy when I came here. The environment was changed especially for my kids, for my family. Especially when you are living in beautiful weather like in Kabul. I don't know if you know, the weather in Kabul is very beautiful, very good. And in Islamabad it is too hot for us and too humid that we are not, especially my family is not, accustomed to this. So the three of them got sick here in the first for two months. When I wanted to start again yoga here, it was very difficult. I found that my body and mind is poisoned, there are toxins in my body and mind. And when I started, I hugged my body in yoga process. We found that it's very difficult to be flexible here because of the environment, the weather. In Kabul after one week, you are flexible, but here, even today, we are not as flexible as we were in Kabul. These days we are working in a fitness club. A fitness club has asked us to work with them. There is a big foundation, international yoga foundation, Yoga Alliance. They are in contact with us. They requested us to have virtual yoga sessions for their Persian clients who are from Afghanistan. I had a virtual class with midwives supported by Johns Hopkins University. And my daughter also is in contact with another yoga community in the US.
AS: I wanted to ask you - women who come from conflict zones, how important is it for them to engage in a physical activity like yoga?
FM: To be honest, for women and girls in Afghanistan, I think the most important need is political support. The support of a system. It is like they can feel that there is a power to support them. See, when you are in a country where you know that terrorists are in power, what do you feel? I want to talk straight. There's a terrorist group on the power in Afghanistan. Of course there is no hope. There is no security. There is no feeling of safety for no one, especially for women and girls. First, they need the support of a system. The support of a political power, when they feel there's no attack on them. At that time they can feel themselves, they can feel their physical body. It was the feeling that I had when I was in Kabul [under Taliban rule]. I didn't feel my body at the time. That was why that I never could practice yoga. I never could. I want to be honest. When I came to Pakistan, after three months, I accepted that I am alive. First, I started walking and running and hiking. Then I came to yoga. The first step was walking for me. I was walking, I'm walking all over Islamabad, and that's why I know the streets of Islamabad. First, we should feel that we are alive. Then we can come to our inner self. Sorry. I am talking very straight.
AS: No, that's exactly what I was expecting. Is there anything from your side that you would want to tell us anything? What is your message to someone reading your story?
FM: Thank you so much. I hope that I answered well and I could answer all the question that you have because English is not my language. My message is that we yoga practitioners in Afghanistan, and we yoga practitioners in Pakistan, are refugees, in need of advocacy, in need of support. We are in danger. And I think the first country that could support us is India. Because the root of yoga is in India. I think it is not it is not impossible for the Indian government to support us. There is a problem for me in Pakistan. The Pakistani government does not let UNHCR to register the newcomers from Afghanistan. And it is a huge problem for me. If I was registered in UNHCR, I could share my story with them. And they could support me and my student. But today we don't have this chance. We are not able to contact with government of Pakistan because they don't trust us. There is a political protocol between Pakistan and Western countries that we can live here. And we are a little safe here, but still we are not entirely safe. My message is that I need support from the Indian government.
AS: We are going to publish your story and make sure that people get to know about this and about your message also. So thank you so much for taking time out and revisiting your past and your struggles and everything that you have left behind in Afghanistan. And it must not have been easy to, you know, go through all that again. So thank you so much.
FM: Thank you. Thank you so much.