Afghanistan: A call to action20 August 2021

News of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has shaken the world. The terror and human tragedy of the situation are plain to see; the fear felt by women and girls acute. Sport and football in particular have been part of the reconstruction of the country, what will happen now? 

In matters of life and death sport may seem like an irrelevance, yet the story of women’s football in Afghanistan tells an important and powerful story of the fight for gender equality in the face of violence, hostilities, and persecution. What comes next for the women involved in sport will be an indication of the future awaiting women and girls across the country.

‘Gender Apartheid’

When the Taliban were last in power between 1996 and 2001, the climate was described as a form of ‘gender apartheid’, women were not allowed to work and girls unable to stay in education beyond the age of eight. Women’s participation in sport was prohibited. 

Football became linked with the cruelty of the Taliban regime, as Ghazi stadium, the main venue in Kabul, became the site of public executions.

And yet after the fall of the regime in 2001 football became a major platform for women to fight back, to claim their space, their voice, their rights.

After playing in a NATO base for safety, the Afghanistan Women’s National Team (WNT) was established in 2007, their first competitive match was played three years later. From being forcibly prevented from participating in football to playing on an international stage, the women involved demonstrated strength and resilience that has been widely admired.

Role models

Rising up in the face of continued discrimination and abuse, the women’s national team became role models to generations of Afghan girls, changing public perceptions of women and their role in society and fighting for the rights and development of others. 

Few people embody this better than Khalida Popal, former captain and now Director of the Afghanistan Women’s National Team. Popal fought for women to play in spite of persistent death threats. Forced to seek asylum in Denmark, she continued to represent the WNT and set up the non-profit Girl Power, which uses sport to empower refugee women and girls. 

Khalida and her teammates, such as another former captain of the team Shabnam Mobarez, also led a pivotal fight for justice against the former President of the Afghanistan Football Federation, who was found guilty of sexual harassment and abuse of the team.

Khalida Popal: ‘Burn your team kit if you have to’

With the return of the Taliban, the fear among women athletes is acute. Their bravery and visibility in recent years now puts them in very real danger. The WNT Twitter account has been deleted to protect those involved. Khalida’s message to them as a leader is clear: “I’m calling them and telling them take down your names, remove your identities, take down photos for safety. I’m even telling them to burn or get rid of their national team uniform,” she said yesterday.

“And that is painful for me, for someone as an activist who stood up and did everything possible to achieve and earn that identity as a women’s national team player. To earn that badge on the chest, to have the right to play and represent our country, how proud we were.”

These impossible conditions are not only impacting footballers. Women cricketers, who have fought so hard for recognition and who were awarded central contracts in November last year, have already been warned by the National Cricket Board that the team will be abandoned. The captain of the wheelchair basketball team meanwhile has declared that “I know I am not safe here. The Taliban will kill me. They don’t like women like me.”

Time and again, Afghan athletes and players have shown tremendous courage and leadership. The international sporting community can now do the same for them.

Call to Action: We cannot allow athletes to be harmed

The developing situation in Afghanistan presents many difficulties; female athletes are uniquely vulnerable, their status may mean they are targeted for harassment or worse.

A lot of people are working to try to ensure the safety of as many women as possible; the support of the public can make a huge difference to the situation. You can do a few simple things: Lobby your governments, use your contacts in sport ministries and foreign ministries, and reach directly to government leaders. Ask them to recognise the difficulties high profile women may face and to prioritise them for evacuation.

The former head coach of the WNT, former USA international Kelly Lindsey, says: “The international sporting community has asked them to stand up for their rights. We’ve told them it’s the right thing to do. We have a responsibility as sportspeople to make sure they’re safe now. They are an important part of the journey for all women’s equality throughout the world – if they can do it in Afghanistan they can do it anywhere. Sport’s governing bodies – boxing, taekwondo, football, all of them – need to take responsibility.

“And who am I to say that my girls are more important than this female journalist or this activist? Get them all out.”

We cannot allow the athletes of Afghanistan to be subject to forces that will see them as a threat and seek to harm them. We can make a difference.