Afghanistan women athletes in peril, future uncertain

·4-min read
© Murali Krishnan

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August last year crushed the dreams and hopes of millions of Afghan women who had made significant strides in the past 20 years.

For athletes and sports women, it has been tough especially after they were banned from playing sport under the new Taliban government.

Many are still left stranded and fearing for their lives after the Taliban swept through the country to retake control. Some have been lucky to escape. They live in exile and are fighting for their colleagues, many who are still in Afghanistan.

"There are still 130 athletes who need to be evacuated. If they are found by the Taliban, it means 100 lashes or even death," former Afghan judoka, Friba Rezayee told RFI.

Rezayee, 36, the country's first ever female Olympian, is constantly in touch with women athletes who are still hiding in Afghanistan. Many have changed identity because they fear being beaten, stoned, or shot to death by the Taliban regime.

"Many still fear that dreaded knock on the door and it is awful what they have go through. And for what? Being punished for playing sports."

She now lives in Canada where she is the executive director of the organisation Women Leaders of Tomorrow.

When the Taliban regime returned to power in Afghanistan, she was one of several individuals who helped female athletes leave the country.

Khalida Popal, former captain and founder of the national women’s team, is now a resident in Denmark. The team fled from Herat with close family and coaches.

Like Rezayee, she, too, has been mobilising the sporting community to give a voice to the women of her country.

"I see the dreams of our women fading away. This is a human rights issue and while I don’t want to be pessimistic, I hope the youth and sports bodies will step up and give back what is due to women," Popal told RFI.

Caught in the crossfire

Both Rezayee and Popal were participants at Play the Game conference in Odense, Denmark, which discusses some of the most pressing issues facing the world of sport and especially how the sports bodies world failed woman athletes in Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban regime.

"Even though the regime almost immediately violated the Olympic charter by declaring a ban on women’s sport, the Taliban-controlled National Olympic Committee of Afghanistan (NOC) is still funded by money from the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity programme," said Rezayee.

According to Rezayee, an email correspondence earlier this year between the IOC and the NOC confirmed the transfer of $56,000 USD (54,775 euros) from the Olympic Solidarity programme to the Taliban-controlled committee in Kabul.

But the money never seemed to reach the Afghan athletes they were meant for.

Before the Taliban regained control last summer, the prospects, especially for female athletes, were on the rise. They were competing not only in the Olympics but also international and national tournaments.

Now, many sportswomen have been in hiding in Afghanistan since the Taliban swept to power amid a precipitated US-led withdrawal of foreign forces, with some women reporting threats of violence from Taliban fighters if they are caught playing.

An uneasy future

Last October, the Taliban reportedly beheaded a women's youth volleyball player and posted pictures of her head on social media.

Mahjabin Hakimi, a member of the Afghanistan women's youth volleyball team, was killed and it had been kept a secret as her family had been threatened not to talk about it.

Despite a promise to respect women’s rights, the Taliban has dramatically rolled back many gains, including closing most girls’ secondary schools, banning women from most forms of employment, and preventing women’s sports.

The harsh restrictions have upended the lives of women, many of whom have grown increasingly anxious and distrustful. Sport is just one avenue of women participating in society that is now deemed impermissible by the country’s rulers.

"Most leaders in sport are only trying to secure their votes and this brotherhood system they have created, especially in football. But we will not let them forget us. We don’t give up," said Popal.

The Afghan women's national volleyball team has petitioned foreign organisations for help to get them out of the country but have so far been unsuccessful.

Last year, human rights lawyer and Olympian Nikki Dryden, was part of the team co-ordinating the cross-border lobbying effort to rescue as many Afghan athletes as she could.

"We evacuated more than 50 female athletes including two Afghan Paralympians and their dependents after lobbying by prominent figures from the sporting world," said Dryden.

"I asked the IOC for help after the evacuations in Afghanistan. They said no," she added.

Some athletes and their families have made it to safety, but there are others who remain trapped in Afghanistan and are desperate to leave.

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