DUSHANBE - Tajikistan is for the first time sending a female boxer to the London Olympics who is on a mission not only to win but to smash gender stereotypes in the religiously conservative ex-Soviet state.
Mavzuna Choriyeva, 19, won her ticket to the Olympics at a qualifying competition in Beijing earlier this year and will be the only competitor from ex-Soviet Central Asia in the boxing competition.
Choriyeva, who fights in the 60 kilogrammes category, is already Asian champion but her qualification spot so delighted the nation that President Emomali Rakhmon awarded her a car as a gift. "My dream is to win a medal at the London Olympics," she told AFP before flying out to the British capital.
"I know this is not going to be easy -- the strongest sportswomen are going to be there with victories and experience behind them. There is nothing to fear -- you just need to move forwards to new victories." "The competition will show your level, your readiness and will reveal your strengths and weaknesses," said Choriyeva, who celebrated her Asian championships victory by wearing a national costume on the podium.
Like many Tajiks of her generation, Choriyeva spent much of her early life in Moscow where her father was working as a migrant labourer in the hope of finding better wages than in their impoverished home country. Her father had dreamed of teaching a son to box but in the end it was his daughter Mavzuna who put on the gloves and rapidly showed her talent. When her father died, she moved back to Tajikistan to work under trainer Mirzo Shamsiyev.
"Marvzuna is a self-starter and very capable. She does it all herself," said Shamsiyev. "She aims at the set task and takes the boxing training very seriously."
Her breakthrough to the higher levels of her sport is all the more remarkable in an overwhelmingly Muslim country where in some conservative circles any women's sport is frowned upon, let alone boxing. "When a woman boxes, she stops being tender and calm. It is not for women and I think women's boxing should be banned," said Malokhat, 36, a mother of three children in a comment that is hardly unrepresentative.
However Choriyeva now boasts that three other girls have set out on the same path as her and have started training. "It's wonderful that women's boxing is now developing in our country." Yet it is still an uphill struggle for the women who have to share the boxing rings with their male counterparts because there are no special facilities for women.
Few parents are willing to let their daughters take part in a full-on combat sport like boxing although women are now taking up the martial art and Olympic sport of Taekwondo. Many in the country are however immensely proud of Choriyeva for making a bold move to destroy stereotypes. "I am delighted with Marvzuna Choriyeva because it is hard for a girl to do this in an Islamic country, let alone one with Sharia tendencies," said sociologist Latofat Saidova, herself a former rower.
"The secret of her success is her fighting character." There are incentives enough for Tajik athletes at the Olympics, with its 15 representatives set to be showered with cash, new apartments and cars by the state if they win gold. While Tajikistan picked up a silver and bronze at Beijing in 2008 for judo and wrestling, the country has never taken the top prize.
Rakhmon has promised $65,000 in cash for a gold medal -- a fortune in the country -- down to $42,000 for a bronze. Even the Islamist-rooted opposition party is offering a two-room apartment to every gold medal winner. "This is a good motivation for Tajik athletes," said Saidova. "Because before all this they have to get through tears, setbacks and injury."