Girl Guides of Canada run in the dark to support women in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, women cannot run freely outside, but some participate in a 'secret' marathon held in an undisclosed location. They run at night to avoid being seen

Participants await the start of the Secret 3K run/walk in Toronto in March 2020. Jessica Powell/Toronto Observer

The moon glistened overhead along Toronto’s waterfront and shouts of joy from men, women and girl guides filled the brisk spring air as they ran across the finish line in a three-kilometre fundraiser to raise awareness of gender equality.

The run, officially known as The Secret 3K, was one of 15 hosted in communities across Canada in March. It specifically raised awareness about The Secret Marathon, an event in Afghanistan that offers women the chance to participate in a race, even though they generally do not have the freedom to run or walk outside.

More than 100 runners, most of them guides and their leaders, gathered at the starting line at 6:30 p.m. on a weeknight in Toronto. The sun had already gone down and the young runners hopped from one foot to the other at the starting line to stay warm.

Running for a reason

“I think it’s important to help people and spread equality because it’s important that everyone has a chance to do what they like,” said Nora Crocker, a Grade 6 student with Branch 266 of the Girl Guides who participated.

Learn more about Toronto’s Secret 3K:

You may be wondering: why run at night?

Because that is when it’s the safest for Afghan women to train for their own marathon.

Canadian Author Martin Parnell and filmmaker Kate McKenzie visited Afghanistan in 2016 and collaborated with women bravely training for the Secret Marathon to produce a book and documentary about their experiences.

From what they saw, women had no other choice but to run at night.

“For most of the women, training was the biggest challenge,” McKenzie said in a phone interview. “Oftentimes, what we heard from the women is that they had people call them prostitutes — that they were destroying Islam — and would have rocks thrown at them.”

Standing up for women’s rights

Even so, a small group of Afghan women were determined to stand up to the disadvantages and unfair treatment they endured.

The women received support and protection through a charity called Free to Run, which provided security while they were running, as opposed to wearing knuckle dusters and carrying pepper spray, which some of the women had been doing to protect themselves from being “out of place” within Afghan traditions and values. 

Watch the trailer for the Secret Marathon documentary:

“Part of why we called it the Secret Marathon was because we couldn’t give away too many details,” McKenzie said.

As they worked with the Afghan runners, Parnell and McKenzie used smaller cameras to avoid attention and did not publicly share what they were doing until after they were done shooting to keep the women, themselves and their crews safe.

Supporting women and girls

In Canada, the annual Secret 3K led to a fundraising partnership with Girl Guides of Canada this year. The runs across the country raised more than $20,000.

“The past three years we’ve been doing this, it’s important for people to know that we are so privileged to be able to run and to be able to walk outside without any threats to our lives,” said Hirra Farooqi, director of the Toronto race, who identifies as Afghan-Pakistani.

Jill Zelmanovits, CEO of Girl Guides of Canada, said the event highlights an improtant connection between guides and other girls around the world.

“I think there’s a connection between girls worldwide and I think girls face different barriers in different places,” she said after the race. “But it is an issue that girls also don’t get to do what they want because of not having a safe space. The more we’re aware of it, the more we could do to change it.”

Parnell said the Secret Marathon will forever be a part of his and McKenzie’s lives. He has kept in touch with some of the women since his journey to Afghanistan.

Of of the runners recently had a baby. Another is now the head manager of Free to Run in Afghanistan, and another recently joined an organization called Skateistan, a non-profit organization that uses skateboarding as an outlet to help young boys and girls develop their education.

The Secret 3K in Canada connects Canadians with their stories and allows them a way to stand up to injustice.

“We need something that shows our unity, not our discourse, and I think this is what this does,” Parnell said.

View a photo gallery of the Toronto 3K:

About this article

Posted: Apr 10 2020 11:14 am
Filed under: Community Events