Afghanistan midfielder Hailai Arghandiwal: ′When you liberate half the population, you liberate everyone′ | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 04.12.2019
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Afghanistan midfielder Hailai Arghandiwal: 'When you liberate half the population, you liberate everyone'

Perceptions are changing, but life as a female footballer remains tough. Afghanistan midfielder Hailai Arghandiwal spoke to DW about that reality and how she is trying to use her platform to help her teammates.

"Afghan women often get put in a box and are told how to dress, how to act, who to talk to and are often told sports are not for them. For me, the pitch is somewhere where I'm unapologetically myself."

Hailai Arghandiwal is a hero of tomorrow. The 23-year-old midfielder for Duisburg and Afghanistan is a woman fighting for her teammates, for the opportunity sport can bring and for all women around the world. She speaks with the kind of nuance only someone in her position can, and as someone who is grateful and fortunate to have been raised by parents who gave her a platform to be herself.

"Whenever I get asked that question, it hurts," Arghandiwal told DW when asked whether she had traveled to Afghanistan yet. "It's a weird feeling, because sometimes it feels like I'll never be able to go and that hurts even more," she added, before stopping herself.

Arghandiwal was born and raised in the Bay Area in California. Her Afghan parents fled war to give their children a better life. Arghandiwal's idol is her father, Atta Arghandiwal. Atta wrote a memoir about his life as a child and young man in Afghanistan, who watched and played football. Later, Hailai watched whatever her father and brother watched. Barcelona and Serie A games were often on the television. Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Gennaro Gattuso left a lasting impression on Hailai.

Having started kicking a ball around age four, Arghandiwal eventually went on to play for and captain the women's soccer team at Santa Clara University, which has a strong soccer program. She first played for the Afghanistan national team at just 14, and was most recently with the team at a training camp in Jordan in 2017.

Afghnaistan's women's football team celebrate during a match. (Shabnam Mubarez)

Besides the more typical hurdles in women's football, Afghanistan's national team has also grappled with decades of conflict at home and years of sexual abuse by their former coach

Fallout from abuse scandal

Arghandiwal says there has been some positive change since the scandal with the Afghanistan national team came out last year, but there is still a great deal of work to be done. Players in the Afghanistan women's national team accused federation officials of sexual abuse and years of cover-ups. An investigation was launched, five officials were suspended in December, former Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) President Keramuudin Karim was banned for life in June this year, and in October, FIFA banned the former general secretary, Sayed Aghazada, for five years for failing to act on allegations made by players. And on Tuesday, FIFA banned Mohammad Hanif Sediqi Rustam, a former assistant to AFF boss Karim, for five years in connection with the same scandal, a decision praised by the Afghan team.

Read more: Afghanistan ex-football chief Karim wanted on arrest warrant

While Arghandiwal welcomes these moves, for her, change still isn't coming fast enough.

"The women who have gone through much more than I ever will in my lifetime and the work that they've been putting in, it's going to take a while for the next generation to see it," she said.

"Do I think there's more growth and room for positive change? Yes. I don't have the answers, but all of the girls are still connected, especially the group who are not in Afghanistan because we share this bond of not living there but also wanting to help… the only way I can help is to develop my platform, to make it big enough to shed light on their stories."

Tough time alone in Florence

In the summer of 2018, Arghandiwal's own story changed as she moved abroad and joined Fiorentina in Serie A. Hampered by the fact she wasn't cleared to play for half the season, coaching she felt was lacking tactically, and a tough battle just to make it work, Arghandiwal's time in Italy helped her grow personally more than professionally.

"I'm taking a tram, a train, biking to get to training every day. It's a mental heaviness every day."

Added to the issues specific to women trying to make a career out of football experience are the mental-health threats of all athletes.

"I don't think we have enough conversations about what the journey of a footballer going to a foreign country is like," Arghandiwal said. "You spend a lot of time with your team, but then you go home and you go to the gym, and you eat lunch, and you're alone. And when you're alone, all you have is right now and you're just thinking… You can push through physical stuff, injuries, practices, because it's physical, but the mental aspects: 'Am I good enough? I am good enough. How do I get a chance?'"

Arghandiwal has a strong support system in the form of her friends and family, but the loneliness was hard to escape. A season later, unhappy at her stagnating situation in Italy, Arghandiwal chose Germany over France because she had family here. She joined Duisburg in the Bundesliga after proving herself at a trial.

Hailai Arghandiwal (Imago Images/MABoSport)

Arghandiwal has found a home at Duisburg, in Germany's Bundesliga

Read more: Afghanistan: Will FIFA's investigation into sexual abuse claims have any impact?

Next stop: Duisburg

Germany has taught her to find a balance between the highs and the lows, and Arghandiwal has great respect for Germany's structure. This is the year she wants to take a big leap as a player, and after a bedding-in period she is ready to play a leading role in helping Duisburg avoid relegation. She wants her voice to be heard off the pitch too. She wants to help push change into the next gear.

"It's an incredible time to be a woman, and an incredible time to be a woman in sports… 2019 has been an incredible year, such great strides have been made, but the whole point is, I've heard some men say, 'Well you guys have gotten that far, this is good!' It's not enough. It's just the beginning. People will either be fearful of it or recognize an opportunity. When you liberate half the population, you liberate everyone."

"It's incredibly important for women to stand with women, because we're all we have. Your struggles are my struggles, whether it's the team in Pakistan, the team in Bhutan, the team in Nepal," Arghandiwal said. "It comes down to people, particularly our male counterparts, to say, given their position of privilege, why don't we put more resources towards the women's side? Or let's get the men's national team to sit out from a training camp because these women don't have balls to play with. But are we willing?"

Read more: World Cup shows how nations back women's soccer — or don't

That question is one that echoes out well beyond the football pitch, bouncing off the walls of board meetings, political chambers and medical facilities. The search for equality remains one of the most important fights of the modern era, and 2019 in sport has seen the rise of an enormous wave of change. Arghandiwal wants to make sure the hope she feels about next year turns out to have been well-founded.

"There are deep gender roles that are so heavily embedded that it's going to take trailblazers, people who are going to invest and say: 'We see value in women's sport, we see value in giving young girls an opportunity to kick a ball around because they are more than just a wife, more than just a daughter who is subservient to the family.'"

Hailai Arghandiwal (picture-alliance/augenklick/Firo Sportphoto/V. Nagrszus)

Arghandiwal's father fled conflict in Afghanistan, heading to California; she hopes to one day return to her ancestral home

'Whether one person or millions, you did what you could'

There's no denying Arghandiwal's capability. A fierce leader on the pitch, the 23-year-old carries the torch off it too. Some dressing rooms might shirk from a busy midfielder, but the wiser ones would embrace a woman who is not only a capable athlete but also a person who recognizes her privilege and is harnessing it to help as many as she can.

"You've stood up for minorities, for people who are truly suffering and you're utilizing your platform," Arghandiwal said of women in sport, who regularly have to cross many hurdles their male counterparts don't.

"Women are incredible. They have no fear, and the reason we don't see or hear about male athletes speaking out or taking a stance is because of the fear of repercussions," she said. "Look at Colin Kaepernick. That man has gone through so much and he has stood up for something, something very real and has created a movement and I think that's more important than the game sometimes, but it's whether you're willing to make that sacrifice."

In the long term, Arghandiwal wants Afghanistan to compete to qualify for a tournament. For her own career, Arghandiwal wants something greater than the medals and accolades her younger self once wished for.

"My greatest achievement would be ideally who I am and what I stood for, that's enough for me. I'd like to think that would be enough for me, to say you stood up for what you thought was right and you impacted the people you could impact, whether it was one person or millions, but you did what you could."

Hailai Arghandiwal is a name worth remembering, because she's fighting for more than the ball in the box. She's fighting for that to be the only box she and thousands of her teammates are ever put in.

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