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Women in Afghanistan fought to play sport, and now they fear it’s being ripped away from them

Ten years ago, Afghanistan’s Paralympic Committee president had eleven bullets fired into his upper body, neck and face by the Taliban. He was left for dead.

This week, the Taliban has returned, killing the dreams of two Paralympic athletes due to fly to Tokyo.

Zakia Khudadadi was to make history as the first female from her country to compete at the Paralympics in the debut sport of para-taekwondo, while teammate Hossein Rasouli was to compete in athletics.

How quickly history can turn.

At the recently completed Tokyo Olympic Games, Afghan 100m runner Kimia Yousofi broke her own national record – set at the Rio Olympics five years ago — and was also joint flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.

Yousofi had much to celebrate. Instead she is commiserating.

“I don’t know if it was the last time I carried your honourable flag to the tournament … I don’t know if I can still tie your proud name headband to my forehead and enter the race ground,” she wrote on Facebook.

For many, it seems God is their only hope, particularly the women — the group most at risk despite the Taliban’s assurances this week that they would respect women’s rights.

Although Yousofi represents Afghanistan, her family lives in Mashhad, Iran, after they fled their home in the 1990s when the Taliban first took control of their country.

As a refugee she could not compete against the Iranian children she grew up with but was identified in a talent search launched by the Afghanistan government ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

 A female Afghanistan athlete stands on the Olympic track in Tokyo after competing in the women's 100m.
Kimia Yousofi ran in the women’s 100m for Afghanistan at the Tokyo Olympics, but she and her family live in Iran after fleeing their home in the 1990s.(

Getty Images: Abbie Parr

)

At the time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) encouraged all national Olympic committees to include at least one woman in their team.

The IOC has earned both sponsors and positive headlines for establishing and supporting the Olympic Refugee Team, but this week, when athletes and officials in Afghanistan needed their support most, emails querying what the Olympic body was doing went mostly unanswered.

Days later, a statement was released attributable only to a spokesperson:

“The IOC is monitoring the situation and is in contact with the sport community in Afghanistan. At the same time, we have forwarded relevant information to a number of responsible governments. For obvious reasons of security of concerned people, we would not comment further at this stage.”

For obvious reasons of security, it might have been welcomed by those most at risk in Afghanistan if IOC president Thomas Bach, who proudly claims to have overseen an organisation achieving gender parity at the Games, put his name to a statement saying he was doing all he could to get guarantees from the caretaker government that athletes are protected and their human right to play sport continues into the future.

That would seem to be the least he could do.

The youngest member of the IOC, Samira Asghari, happens to be the former captain of Afghanistan’s national basketball team.

If the IOC was secretly working the back channels, one wonders why its member from Afghanistan resorted to tweeting the US asking for help.

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But it’s not just Olympians and Paralympians.

Fears for footballers after promising progress

The story of Afghanistan’s female football team, known as the National Women’s Team (NWT), has been well documented over several years.

Their bravery was not just in being the first to demand the right to practise on a sporting field and to represent their country, but also in more recent years taking on the male officials who had been sexually abusing them.

Khalida Popal was a driving force of women’s football in Afghanistan and became the NWT’s first captain from 2007 until 2011 when she was forced to flee her country because of sustained and serious death threats.

An Afghan woman speaks on stage at an international football inclusion conference in Switzerland.
Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s national football team, says she has had trouble coping with events in the country.(

Getty Images / FIFA: Valeriano Di Domenico

)

Hearing Popal speak this week was like listening to the unravelling of a human spirit.

“As every other woman and man from Afghanistan I’ve been going through a lot of deep feelings about all the work we have done, all the dedication and sacrifices that the people of Afghanistan, especially the women of Afghanistan, have been through,” she told The Ticket.

“And also, all those innocent soldiers that came to our country … wasted their lives, it was just wasted. It was just like all the fighting that they have done to bring peace has been wasted, and that is painful.

Now living in Denmark, Popal founded Girl Power, an organisation that uses sport to bring together women from minorities and at-risk groups, but her heart remains with Afghanistan’s female football players.

“Our first-ever Afghanistan National Women’s Team – our foundation, the purpose of the team — was to be the voice of voiceless women of Afghanistan, the women who are under the dark regime of the Taliban still,” she said.

“I feel pain when I think about the time the international community arrived in our country, what I remember was all these big words, promising words, of defending women’s rights, human rights, and being with the women of Afghanistan.

“All these conferences which took place, all these speeches by the government … saying the women of Afghanistan are not alone and we are supporting women to not spend their lives under the dark regime of the Taliban as we did for eight years the first time the Taliban came.

“And all of a sudden, they are all left alone without protection … why has the world abandoned the women of Afghanistan?

“That’s what hurts the most.”

‘The men sold the country, the men got out of the country’

Popal said the bravery of those women had left them exposed now that the Taliban has returned to power, and “today or tomorrow their enemies will come and get them”.

“I think as women of Afghanistan we have been played, we have been a kind of puppet in a game that we did not know,” she said.

“Our countrymen and politicians came together saying this is the new Afghanistan, the women of Afghanistan can play football, the women of Afghanistan can sing, and this is the new Afghanistan.

She said the men who made the promises of safety and progress for women in Afghanistan had lied to them.

“It’s a man-made deal; the men sold the country, the men got out of the country. What about the women? What will happen to women? That’s the question that needs to be asked,” she said.

On social media there were calls to stop re-posting images of female players so as not to make it easier for the Taliban to identify them should they decide female athletes should be sought out and punished.

Behind the scenes there are player groups and human rights agencies in Europe, England, the USA and Australia, working together to pull every string they can to get the remaining NWT footballers out of Afghanistan.

The world’s biggest sport, with its well-established player association FIFPRO, knows what to do in these circumstances; they’ve been down this road before with the NWT.

Locally, the campaign to save the wrongly imprisoned Bahraini refugee Hakeem al-Araibi was coordinated by former Socceroos captain Craig Foster with the help of the Australian player body, PFA.

They are active again, both privately and publicly, knowing that as a co-host to the next FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2023, to abandon female players at their time of need would make a mockery of both the government’s and the governing body’s public relations campaigns aligning the event to human rights and women’s rights.

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The Taliban are back. What happens now?

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