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

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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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No union for Paralympians

Unfortunately for Paralympian Zakia Khudadadi, there is no powerful player union. She cannot afford to hide away either. Her only hope to be rescued is for people to see her and hear her.

She was left to issue her own call for help during the week, with a video message sent to the team’s London-based chef de mission, Arian Sadiqi, to be distributed via the world’s media.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Road to Tokyo: Afghan paralympian Zakia Khudadadi pleads for help

“I request from you all that I am an Afghan woman, and on behalf of all Afghan women, to help me. My intention is to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, please hold my hand and help me!

“Please, I request you all — especially all the women from around the globe and the female institutions and the United Nations to not let the right of a female citizen of Afghanistan in the Paralympic movement to be taken away, so easily.

“I have struggled a lot to get here, this in itself is a great achievement and not to be taken lightly. I don’t want my struggle to be in vain and without any results. Help me!”

Sadiqi himself felt helpless, telling the Road to Tokyo program:

“We always say we are part of one body, whether the Olympic committee, the Paralympic committee, the Asian body … in a situation like this you really get to feel the sense of belonging by what they can do for you.

Arian Sadiq sits wearing a suit looking at the camera
Arian Sadiq, the Afghanistan Paralympic team chef de mission, said he felt hopeless.(

Supplied: Instagram

)

“For example, today I have got back-to-back interviews, but people have not come across to say, what can I do to help?

“When I heard Zakia’s voice this morning, she said, ‘I still haven’t lost hope.’ 

Sadiqi reached out to the Swiss-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights.

Kholadadi’s name has since been added to a list of names that various sports and human rights groups are hoping to rescue.

Unlike the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) agreed to speak on the matter.

“We are in connection with the Paralympic committee of Afghanistan and their chef de mission, and so far, let’s say they are safe,” IPC president, Andrew Parsons, told The Ticket from Tokyo.

“We have been trying to find ways to bring them here so they could compete … but there are no commercial flights coming out of Afghanistan so at this very moment we are thinking of them more from a human being perspective rather than an athlete perspective so to bring them to Tokyo would probably put them more at risk … this is maybe not the moment for them to compete at the Paralympic Games.

“It doesn’t seem possible to bring them here in a safe manner.”

The IPC’s experience shows sport does have a role to play in times like these.

“We have faced situations like this in the past … we have a refugee team … athletes asking for asylum in different nations … it’s something we have some experience in dealing with,” Parsons said.

“Normally we do it with international organisations and with governments but of course, this just happened, the Taliban just took over, it’s been a matter of days so we did not have time to react in advance, it’s not something we could do before it happened like taking them out of the country before the Taliban took over.

“We have more than 180 nations that come, some have different regimes … sometimes we have to strip events from nations due to political attitudes connected with these competitions so, I’m not saying it’s part of my day-to-day job, but it is something that is not strange to us.”

Refugee team featuring Afghani athletes will compete

While the Afghanistan Paralympic team won’t be in Tokyo, a refugee from the country will be, competing as one of six members of the IPC Refuge team.

Abbas Karimi is Hazara, a persecuted minority in Afghanistan and previously targeted by the Taliban. He was born without arms in a nation that looks down on disability. 

Abbas Karimi, a man with no arms, sits cross legged on the side of a swimming pool
Abbas Karimi will compete for the Refugees Paralympic Team.(

Getty Images: Catherine Ivill

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To help him integrate with others his own age, Karimi’s brother built a community pool in Kabul where he learned to swim. But the discrimination and bullying continued.

“As a person with a disability, I didn’t fit into that society. I had to leave,” Karimi told the Paralympic news website.

He fled to Iran, hid in the mountains, and made it to Turkey before being accepted as a refugee in the United States.

This week, as he prepares to win a gold medal as a representative of 80 million displaced people, Karimi is no doubt feeling an added layer of anguish.

“This morning I was with the chef de mission of the Refugee Paralympic team to try to offer any support we can give to him [Karimi],” Parsons said.

“Probably he is thinking about his family, his friends, who are there and the consequences they may have with the Taliban taking over.

“We say the Paralympic refugee team is the marginalised of the marginalised … but sport is a kind of escape from that.

“The time he should be focusing solely on his competition here in Tokyo, without all of the difficulties that we have here because of the pandemic, now there is this — which is far bigger than about sport, it’s about his family, his friends, his country.

“We are offering emotional support, trying to help him get in touch with his family in Afghanistan … it’s really tough, it’s really sad to see just a few days before the opening of the Paralympic Games.”

‘I am not OK’

A Taliban fighter stands on top of a guard tower, holding a gun. A white flag is visible behind him
The Taliban swept into Kabul with minimal resitance.(

AFP: Javed Tanveer

)

One former journalist and television host, who did not wish to be identified, now works as an executive in a national sporting body in Afghanistan.

On Monday when news first broke of Kabul falling to the Taliban she was contacted to see if she was OK.

“I am not OK,” she typed in response, “I am in Afghanistan, but I am deeply hopeless.”

It took three more days before contact could be made over the phone.

“You know we have come a long way … I did a lot to get to this position before the Taliban came so for now it’s very difficult for me because the future is uncertain.

“The Taliban says we will allow women to work and there is no limit or concerns for women, but you see the situation, there is no woman on the streets, and no-one is going to their office because they are afraid.”

There are reports the Taliban are door-knocking, seeking out those who previously worked for the government, for allied forces, or the media.

“I don’t have [such an] experience because no-one of my relatives told me about their home having been searched or not.

“Since they [the Taliban] came they are saying, ‘we, have been changed and we don’t want to kill anyone, everyone has the right to go outside to work … those who are working with the government and journalists, they can do their work’.

“But because there is no government, we are not sure that that will be fact, or if it will be implemented in the future or not. It’s just words.

“Because of that I am emphasising that everything is uncertain.

“You know, I used to travel alone, I studied outside the country, I studied my post-graduate abroad, and as well I went to cover some events — recently I went to Japan — but I think … these things will not be the same.

Taliban fighters display their white flag on patrol in Kabul
There have been reports of Taliban knocking on people’s doors to seek out those who previously worked in the media.(

AP: Rahmat Gul

)

“During their government 20 years back, they did not allow women to go outside without their men, without mahram [a close male family member], so how is it possible that they allow women to go outside the country alone without their spouses, without their brothers or fathers?”

It is a return to a lifestyle many of the younger women of Afghanistan have never known, a lifestyle that dictates they cannot work, travel or even leave their homes alone. 

Some have contemplated leaving Afghanistan, but how? There are no public flights out of Kabul for now, and later it might be impossible.

“I had a lot of plans for the future but unfortunately it is not certain.

“I don’t know what’s behind this game.

“If we stay here … we feel very hopeless about our future, about our children.

“I am married, I am going to have a baby … it’s very difficult for me and when I think about my children and if we put all this struggle again and again and again, what will the meaning of life be for us?

“I prefer to leave but my husband would like to stay because he said if we are going to another country, we are only migrants and there is no good job for us … It’s very difficult for us because we studied, we worked, we have experience and now if we leave the country … we are just a migrant.”

Right now, Afghans are feeling desperate, helpless, angry and abandoned, like puppets dropped on the stage while the puppeteers and audiences have all gone home.

“I think all of Afghanistan has been mistreated and sold out, and I don’t know who is playing that game. Who is behind it? Which country? Who doesn’t want us to live a good life or to improve our country or to live in a peaceful country? 

“All the world knows what we were promised.”

Broken promises and misplaced belief. Afghanistan’s uncertain future might seem a million miles away but their cries for help have reached us all.

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