News of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has shaken people across the globe. In Afghanistan itself the fears of women and girls within the country are plain to see. 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 depicts an important and powerful 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.
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 infamously 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 comprehensively demonstrated their own strength.
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.
Popal 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 as found guilty of sexual harassment and abuse of the team.
With the return of the Taliban, the fear among women athletes is palpable. The bravery and visibility of these women 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
The developing situation in Afghanistan presents many difficulties; female athletes are uniquely vulnerable, their status may mean they are targeted for harassment or worse.
The support of the global public can make a huge difference to the situation. We would ask anyone concerned about the situation to do a few simple things: Lobby your governments, use contacts in sport ministries, foreign ministries and directly to government leaders, ask them to recognise the difficulties high profile women may face and to prioritise them for evacuation.
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.