As the World Cup approaches, FIFA are investigating claims female footballers from Afghanistan were sexually abused. But with conservative attitudes so entrenched and victim-blaming rife, can it make any difference?
The eighth edition of the FIFA Women's World Cup gets underway in France on Friday as the women's game experiences a boost in popularity across the globe.
The president of the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) Keramuddin Keram and five other high-ranking officials were suspended by FIFA in December last year after allegations of sexual abuse made by former national captain and current team director Khalida Popal in March 2018.
The British daily The Guardian revealed on Thursday however that it had been shown emails which suggest the abuse claims go back as far as April 2017, including the alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old boy by a coach by the name of Habib Charjeba, who is still involved in coaching.
The results of the governing body's investigation into the allegations are expected in the coming weeks but Popal, 32, has told DW that she has reservations about the long-term effects. That stance is perhaps not surprising, given the deeply ingrained cultural issues which still hold women back in Afghanistan's male-dominated society, including in sport.
Cultural changes and coercion
Women are no longer banned from taking part in sporting activities: hiking and cricket are particularly popular and the women's national football team was established in 2007 – although many women still require permission from male family members.
Following the allegations against the AFF in 2018, some of the players said they had been put under pressure to stop playing by their families due to the perceived shame of being associated with sexual abuse. Victim-blaming is rife and rather than support, the alleged victims of sexual abuse in Afghanistan are more likely to be confronted by suspicion and accusations themselves.
Players were also asked to sign contracts which would have preventing them from receiving independent sponsorship, remuneration or legal aid in the case of disciplinary hearings.
"My mouth hit the floor when I read the contracts for the first time," said former Afghanistan national team assistant coach Haley Carter in a discussion with the feminist sports podcast Burn It All Down. "We couldn't ask the girls to sign them. We told them to speak to their families and their attorneys and that we would support them, whatever their choice."
Some progress, but not everywhere
For midfielder Mina Ahmadi, who is based in Germany, signing the contract was not an option. "We were in shock - how can anyone ask us to sign anything like that?" she told the podcast. "But it was important for us to speak up and do the right thing."
Progress has been made in Afghanistan in the 18 years since the toppling of the repressive Taliban regime in 2001, but gender discrimination and awareness of women's rights remain significant problems in the war-torn country – especially in more traditional, rural areas where the Taliban still wield influence.
"The phenomenon of blaming women for being victims of sexual violence is not an exclusively Afghan or Muslim problem," said Ellinor Zeino, country director for the Konrad Adenauer-Foundation, a political foundation with roots in Germany and an office in the Afghan capital city of Kabul. "However it can have extreme consequences here in Afghanistan, including further violence from within the family itself, because family also find themselves under enormous social pressure.
Zeino explained that a change in the social discourse in the country is necessary for lasting change to take place, telling DW: "Only when society begins to differentiate clearly between victim and perpetrator, and clearly condemn all forms of sexual violence, will it become easier for victims and their families to protect themselves."
"A public debate around the topic is taking place in Afghanistan," she insisted. "Now it must be expanded slowly and gently into the wider, highly conservative population."
Internal change required
But the change also has to be led from within the Afghan population itself. Too often, external aid and assistance in Afghanistan is limited to Kabul and other urban areas, or ultimately becomes little more than political symbolism while changing little on the ground.
In politics, for instance, a quota guarantees that 68 of the 249 seats in the country's parliament are reserved for women but even these, like those held by men, are still open to corruption and abuse, while women's power is limited.
And when the AFF was made aware of the allegations of sexual abuse in the women's national team, the goalkeeping coach was instead put in charge of the men's under-17 team while another representative was made head of the legal committee – effectively promotions rather than punishments.
The hope is that the findings of FIFA's Ethics Committee investigation will focus further international attention on the situation for female athletes in Afghanistan, leaving the authorities with nowhere to hide and obliging them to act.
Then, perhaps, Afghanistan's women footballers will finally have the chance to achieve the success and recognition of their counterparts competing in France this month.