Afghanistan’s female footballers "desperate" and "hiding away" from Taliban

Afghanistan's female footballers are reportedly "hiding away" after the takeover by the Taliban

Afghanistan’s female football players are reportedly fearing for their lives following the Taliban takeover in the country.

The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan on Sunday after capturing the capital city Kabul. The group previously had control of the country from 1996 until 2001, and imposed its own strict version of Sharia, or Islamic law, which severely restricted the freedoms of women.

As a result, members of Afghanistan's national women’s football team, formed in 2007, are fearing for their lives. AP spoke to former captain Khalida Popal about the situation her teammates were in.

"I have been encouraging to take down social media channels, take down photos, escape and hide themselves," she said. "That breaks my heart because of all these years we have worked to raise the visibility of women and now I’m telling my women in Afghanistan to shut up and disappear. Their lives are in danger."

Popal added: "We would not have created enemies. They are crying. They are just crying... they are sad. They are just like desperate. They have so many questions. What is happening to them isn’t fair.

"They are hiding away. Most of them left their houses to go to relatives and hide because their neighbors know they are players. They are sitting, they are afraid. The Taliban is all over. They are going around creating fear."

When was Afghanistan’s women’s football team created?

The team, who trained inside a NATO base in Kabul for their own safety, was formed in 2007 by the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee. They played their first international match in December 2010 against Nepal, earning their first official international victory with a 2-0 result over Qatar in 2012.

As of June, Afghanistan were ranked 152nd in the world by FIFA, but reached a record-high of 108th in December 2013.

Khalida Popal played for Afghanistan's women's football team between 2007 and 2011

Popal played for the team from 2007 to 2011, before hanging up her boots to coordinate the team as a director at the Afghanistan Football Association. She was forced to flee Afghanistan in 2011 after receiving numerous death threats. Popal first left the country in 1996 when the Taliban took control of Kabul, and had returned once the regime was over.

Afghanistan’s female footballer players were subject to sexual abuse by Afghan Football Federation (AFF) officials from 2013 to 2018, as first published in The Guardian in November 2018.

AFF President Keramuddin Karim was banned for life from football by FIFA as a result of the allegations in June 2019.

What does the Taliban takeover mean for women’s sport in Afghanistan?

The Taliban’s return to power is likely to be devastating for women’s sport in Afghanistan. The group views women playing sport as un-Islamic.

According to reports, women in areas controlled by the Taliban are already having their freedoms curtailed. They have been told not to return to their jobs, and only to leave home if wearing an all-covering burqa and accompanied by a male guardian.

Social media users have expressed concerns for female athletes in Afghanistan. One tweet by ESPN journalist Annesha Ghosh about the country’s women’s cricket team has gone viral.

The post featured a picture of the team smiling and holding hands in a circle, with the caption: "In November the Afghanistan Cricket Board pledged to award central contracts to 25 female cricketers. A skills-and-fitness camp was organised in Kabul; a women's national team was to be formed."

Afghanistan was also set to be represented by a female athlete at the Paralympic Games for the first time next week, but Zakia Khudadadi is now unable to travel to Tokyo. Airports in Afghanistan are currently closed, making a journey to Japan impossible. 

Khudadadi was due to compete in the Para-taekwondo contest at Tokyo 2020, alongside compatriot Hossain Rasouli. The 23-year-old had been awarded a wildcard in the K44 classification after taekwondo was given a spot on the Paralympic programme for the first time.

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