‘Their lives are in danger’: Afghanistan’s female athletes sound alarm after Taliban takeover

·5-min read

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has raised grave concerns for the country’s female athletes. Now that Sharia law will be enforced, they worry about losing the freedoms they have gained over the past two decades and in some cases fear for their lives.

Afghanistan enjoyed a period of relative freedom after a US-led coalition ousted the Taliban from power in 2001. Women’s sports flourished against a backdrop of greater respect for their civil rights. However, the Taliban’s takeover raises many concerns for the future of female freedoms in the country.

Under the Taliban’s tyrannical 1996-2001 regime, games, music, photography and television were banned. Girls had no right to an education. Women were forbidden to work or to go outside the home without a male chaperone. And if they were accused of crimes, such as adultery, they were whipped or stoned to death. At his first press conference in Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid assured that women's rights would be respected from now on, but within the "framework of Islamic law".

The Taliban’s seizure of power is worrying for many female Afghan athletes, such as Zakia Khudadadi, who should have made history when she was to become the first woman to represent her country at the Tokyo Paralympics on August 24.

"This is the first time that a female athlete will be representing Afghanistan at the Games and I am so happy," the taekwondo champion enthused on August 10 in an interview with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) website.

But due to the Taliban takeover, the Afghan delegation will not be going to the Paralympic Games. “Because of the very serious situation in the country, all airports are closed and it will be impossible for them to leave for Tokyo,” IPC spokesman Craig Spence said.

The head of the Afghan Paralympic delegation, Arian Sadiqi, who is based in London, gave Reuters a video of Khudadadi reacting to the arrival of the Taliban in power. She says she feels "imprisoned". She is currently being housed by distant family and does not want to risk going out, training or seeing her friends.

"I urge all of you, women around the world, institutions protecting women's rights, governments, not to let the rights of an Afghan woman in the Paralympic movement be killed so easily," she says, still hoping to find a way to participate in the Games.

Afghan Olympic flag-bearers in fear

More Afghan athletes of both sexes are speaking up in the face of the Taliban’s takeover. One of the most poignant messages was posted by sprinter Kimia Yousofi, Afghanistan's flag-bearer at the Tokyo Olympics, who wondered whether she would be both the first and last woman to perform that role for her country. She was eliminated in the 100-metre heats in Tokyo, as she was in Rio in 2016.

"My dear homeland ... How they left you alone. Dear people, to all the strong girls in my country ... may God protect you," she wrote on Instagram. "I don't know if that was the last time I carried that flag to the Games. I don't even know if I can compete in a race to represent you."

Yousofi’s fears were echoed by Afghan taekwondo athlete Farzad Mansouri, the country’s other flag-bearer in Tokyo, who asked users to "Pray for my country" on Instagram.

Afghan women's football in peril

The concern is also palpable for Khalida Popal, who launched the first Afghan women’s national football team in 2007. A refugee in Denmark since 2016 due to death threats against her, Popal gave an interview to the Associated Press in which she shares her fears. She explains that she begged the country's players to run away, leave their homes and not be caught by neighbours who would like to see them imprisoned.

“I have been encouraging [them] to take down social media channels, take down photos, escape and hide themselves,” Popal says. “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.

“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.”

After her stint with the national team, Popal retired from sport in 2011 to concentrate on promoting women's football in her country, a dream she continues to pursue despite her exile in Denmark. Faced with the Taliban, she also fears for the integrity of Afghan football officials who have encouraged women's football.

The fears of Afghanistan’s footballers are shared in Europe. On August 17, the Spanish newspaper Marca asked about the fate of these athletes on its front page, a rare event for this sports daily. "What will become of them?” the headline read.

The newspaper tells the story of Nilofar Bayat, captain of Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball team.

"We are afraid, I am afraid for my life, we want to get out of here," says the player, who has asked the Spanish Basketball Federation for help.

"Unfortunately, it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the future of Afghan sport. We can think of high-level sport but the real catastrophe concerns access to sport for the population, especially girls," notes David Blough, former director of the Play International NGO and a member of the scientific committee of the Sport and Citizenship think tank, in an interview with regional newspaper Ouest-France.

“The reality is terrifying: It was already difficult to develop sport in the country, it will be even more difficult tomorrow."

This article is a translation from the original in French.

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