This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.

Four years ago—the last time I was in Afghanistan to visit my family—I tried to explain to my mother why I’d taken up running. “What are you running away from?” she kept asking. Not until she listened to my tone of voice did she finally understand.

“It must be nice to have an escape,” she said.

When I was born, my parents lived in a refugee camp in Iran. To this day, I’m not sure of my exact birthdate. My mother couldn’t read or write, so when she was given my birth certificate, she lost it.

After I turned 8, my family moved me and my eight siblings from Iran to Kunduz, one of the most conservative provinces in Afghanistan. Girls can’t go to public school there. Outside, we had to be covered up, without any bare skin showing. People judged you if your eyes looked up, not down. By the time I was a teenager, I was dying of seeing nothing but pavement.

“If anyone touches you on the street, walk faster. Don’t say anything,” my mother instructed me. But if I was harassed by a man, I couldn’t stay quiet. I would try to slap them. It didn’t go well. Shopkeepers would say, “If you don’t want to be touched, why are you outside?” Sick of me getting into fights, my parents allowed me to attend the first female boarding school in Afghanistan, in Kabul.

My father stopped going to school at age 11. My mother didn’t learn to sign her name until she was 47. Still, they taught me to value education. I learned English and at 14, came to the U.S. to attend boarding school in Rhode Island on a scholarship.

I was in culture shock at first. People spoke so fast! I worried that the bed in my dorm room was by a window. What if there was a bomb blast? For weeks, I slept on the floor.

Walking at night also scared me. I associated that time of day with shooting between Taliban soldiers and the government. It took a long time before I felt ready to brave the one-minute walk from the library to my dorm alone.

I was feeling homesick when the cross-country coach encouraged me to start running with the team. At first, I didn’t want to. I’m Hijabi, meaning I choose to cover my hair like I always had growing up. I knew I’d look different. My coach wouldn’t take that as an excuse. The next thing I knew, I was picking out a pair of running shoes.

I discovered I loved running. Each practice felt like a small victory that gave me confidence for the rest of the day. Still, when I first began running in my hijab, a lot of people looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“Why are you torturing yourself, covered up in the heat of summer?” people asked. Or, “You’re in America now. You have freedom. Why not use it?”

They didn’t understand: I grew up in a country where girls are raised to do everything to make the life of men better—to cook, to clean, to make breakfast. Girls in Kunduz don’t go to school. They wear the clothes that a man tells them to, and they marry who they’re told to. The inequalities in Afghanistan are the result of many decades of war and foreign invasion. 

Each time I ran, whether fifteen minutes or an hour, was truly “free” time I was giving myself.

I’m 21 now and have finished a marathon and half-marathons as well as a 50-mile ultra-marathon. I’m going to be a senior at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, majoring in biochemistry, and I still run five to six times a week. I also find time to write about my experiences.

When I was first thinking about running, I looked online to find other Muslim girls running in hijab. I didn’t find much, so I decided to make my own blog: The Hijabi Runner.

I hope it helps other Muslim women choose an active lifestyle and non-Muslims realize how difficult it is to be an identifiable Muslim in the West right now. Google the word and the first thing you’ll see are images of 9/11, war in Iraq, jihads, men who have four wives. These are things Islam is associated with, but the way we Muslims say hi to each other is “Peace be upon you.” How did my peaceful religion become associated with such violent images?

After I finished my ultra-marathon, my sister, a lawyer in Afghanistan, congratulated me. “In honor of your race,” she said, “I bought myself a treadmill, but running outside will be my dream.”

We Afghan women have a long path ahead—but I believe in the power of small changes.

Most acts of bravery in my life were not because I one day woke up and said, “I’m going to stand up for myself.” Being strong was the only choice.

Zahra Arabzada is an ambassador for Free to Run, an organization that aims to empower women and girls in conflict-affected communities around the world.

We want to hear more amazing stories about #RealLifeStrong women. Nominate yourself—or a friend or family member—here. We’ll be sharing the most inspiring stories we receive in the months ahead.

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