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The Taliban and women's sport: Progress reversed

Symbols of resistance and empowerment now gripped by fear: Betrayal and anger for Afghanistan’s female athletes after Taliban's return to power
6 min read
11 November, 2021
Three months after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, women's sport has paid a high price after the Taliban's reassertion of control. With many women's teams fleeing to Europe, women wishing to pursue sport in the country face a worrying future.

After the Taliban seized Kabul in August, following a calamitous US departure that marked the end of America’s longest war, Afghanistan’s female athletes, who have in recent years become symbols of resistance and empowerment, were suddenly gripped by fear.

Reports surfaced of the Taliban going door-to-door, seeking out prominent women athletes and sports players, who had suddenly become the hunted. Fearing a return to the harsh Taliban rule of two decades ago, many burned their equipment and trophies, removing all traces of their sporting life. Others went into hiding. Still, many were among the countless Afghans who thronged Kabul airport, desperately hoping to get on an evacuation flight.

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Seema Rezai, a member of Afghanistan’s national boxing team, secured herself a seat on a flight to Qatar. Rezai initially refused to stop training when the Taliban regained power. “I started boxing at 18 without my family’s permission,” she told The New Arab. “I had to hide what I did for years. When the Taliban entered Kabul, I refused to let everything I had worked for be taken away.”

Then someone informed the Taliban that Rezai was still training with a male coach. Days later she received a warning, in writing, from the Taliban. “I either had to leave the country or I would be killed,” she explained.

Helped by a Western aid outfit, Rezai was able to get out, but her family remains in Afghanistan and in potential danger. A ragtag group of aid workers and retired athletes helped members of the Afghan cycling, football and cricket teams flee into neighbouring countries, and from there to the US, Canada and Australia.

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But many female athletes remain in Afghanistan. One member of a provincial cycling team, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns, felt her future had been crushed. “I have lost everything,” she told The New Arab. “The Taliban has ended my dreams of competing internationally and one day representing my country. Even before they came to power, many people didn’t accept girls riding bikes. It took years to persuade my family to let me ride. I am trying everything to leave the country to be able to ride again.”

Spectators watch Qatari and Afghan players during a friendly football match between the two countries' women football teams at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on November 10, 2021 [Getty Images]

A return to repression

The future’s bleak for the sportswomen who remain. Comments from senior Taliban leaders indicate that women’s participation in sporting competitions of any sort will be forbidden.

Ahmadullah Wasiq, the deputy head of the Taliban's cultural commission, told Australia’s SBS News that women's sports were inappropriate, adding that women are prohibited from activities that “expose their bodies”.

Another source told The New Arab that the Taliban is unlikely to implement an official ban, as its quest for international legitimacy is faltering, which could further imperil the Afghan economy. Despite meetings with representatives of several countries, as of the last days of October no foreign government had recognised Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

It may not be the gravest concern facing Afghan women, but the Taliban’s position on women’s sport reflects the country's uncertain future. Sport is just one of many rights women have lost since the Taliban’s return to power. Despite initially striking a more reconciliatory tone, including a promise to moderate its behaviour, the group has shown little evidence of reform.

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During the Taliban's reign in the 1990s, women effectively vanished from the public space and were even banned from leaving home without a chaperone (mahram). Though it later become a training ground for the women’s national athletics teams, Kabul stadium was used to stage frequent public executions. Today it appears that history is repeating itself. Women’s visibility, rights, education and employment opportunities have been severely restricted

The development of women’s sport

If the Taliban maintains its ban on women’s sports, it will destroy decades of hard work and the hopes of a generation. Sport has served as a crucial activity and a form of activism for women battling a deeply conservative and patriarchal society. Family objections, mostly centred on issues of modesty, often forced women to give up their athletic endeavours or practice in secret. At the same time, acts of sexual harassment, discrimination and violence remained a daily occurrence.

Khaleda Popal, founder and ex-captain of the women’s national football team, knows this all too well. Just creating a team was fraught with risk. “We faced many challenges. People would refer to us as prostitutes. We were told we had brought shame to the country. Even older women were standing against us as they saw us as a threat to Afghanistan’s culture and religion,” she told The New Arab.

Popal’s success came at a price. As her profile grew, so did the threats, ultimately forcing her to flee. Since gaining asylum in Denmark, Popal has helped coordinate Afghan women’s football from exile.

Years of hard work and progress were derailed by a culture of sexual violence and corruption within the country’s male-dominated sporting bodies. In 2019, FIFA banned the president of Afghanistan’s Football Federation from the sport for life, following reports that he and other AFF officials had sexually assaulted members of the women’s national team.

According to Popal, what happened was merely the tip of the iceberg. “Corruption and abuse of power have always been an issue. There was no safeguarding or system in place to protect the women, many of whom were very vulnerable. Many gatekeepers in the system let that abuse happen while governing bodies simply forgot their responsibility to players.”

Against this backdrop, the achievements of these women are all the more remarkable. In 2016, Italian officials nominated Afghanistan’s national women’s cycling team for the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years later, Hanifa Yousoufi became the first Afghan woman to reach the summit of Noshaq, the highest point in Afghanistan. Even lesser-known sports have seen significant progress.

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At the most recent Olympics in Tokyo, Afghan taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi competed in the Paralympic Games, becoming the first female Afghan to do so. Despite being a relatively new phenomenon, chess is increasingly popular with girls and women, with clubs popping up around the country. In March, Kabul hosted the country’s first-ever all-female chess tournament, marking International Women’s Day.

All those involved in Afghan women’s sport are today feeling a justifiable sense of betrayal and anger. The very same international community that, two decades ago, encouraged women to rise up and play, have now turned their backs and fled as the Taliban has returned to power. Those who have found refuge abroad may have an opportunity to continue to compete, but in what international capacity remains unclear.

The thousands of women athletes left behind face a much bleaker future. All they have left may be the hope that the next generation will be allowed to play.

Hannah Wallace is a London-based writer and researcher on armed violence and foreign affairs