Salhat Abbasova testifies to the benefit of sports for girls

By Brian Canever September 17, 2014

When asked about the three qualities that define an empowered woman, Salhat Abbasova answers straightforwardly: “Self-confidence, flexibility and charm.”

It isn’t a surprising response, considering how the Azerbaijan native has embodied each of those traits throughout a career that has seen her play international handball, teach physical education and serve on leadership roles at four separate organizations for sports in her country.

Abbasova inherited her love of physical activity from her father, a former Ukrainian swimmer. And although she admits that swimming is her favorite form of exercise, she was a member of the USSR national women’s handball team prior to Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991.

It was a Soviet Union team that had a history of winning: two Olympics gold medals in 1976 and 1980, and three consecutive World Championship wins in 1982, 1986 and 1990.

But these were achievements that would have been impossible in such a diverse team without a sense of unity.

“During my time on the national team, there were a number of different nations that played together under the name of the Soviet Union,” says Abbasova. “We learned so much about one another. Most importantly, we learned that our individual countries should not surpass our team goals.”

After receiving her degree in physical education in 1991, Abbasova went on to work as a teacher at three different institutions, including the Azerbaijan State Pedagogical University. She took on various other roles at national organizations during this time, while also attaining a master’s degree in sport management and Ph.D. in biology.

With her background in P.E., it makes sense that Abbasova’s focus has been trying to find a way to illustrate how the benefit of sport extends beyond competition and winning championships. Her current position as the deputy director general for the Sports and Health Center of the State Customs Committee of Azerbaijan has allowed her to expand on her goals of reaching and educating young women.

“Girls who are involved in sport are typically healthy, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially,” says Abbasova. “When these girls become mothers, they will not only know how to raise their daughters, but also their sons. If we improve the lives of our girls through sport, we can create a new and healthy society.”

Abbasova hopes to run a non-governmental organization (NGO) in the future that can further serve as a bridge toward empowerment, especially in underserved, rural areas in her country.

Of course, there has already been major progress in Azerbaijan since Abbasova’s youth, when she says, “Some parents…wrote notes to the principals to excuse their daughters from physical education classes.”

But, in the area of athletics and Olympic sports, in particular, there is still work to be done. And it will be no surprise to see Abbasova as the one spearheading that effort in the coming years.