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'When I see the Taliban on the street, I feel so scared'

James Thorogood
August 20, 2021

Speaking to DW from her basement, a female Afghan football player describes her horror at the return of the Taliban and begs for help. While aid efforts continue behind the scenes, here is her story.

Afganistan | Taliban in Kabul
Image: Rahmat Gul/AP Photo/picture alliance

Khalida Popal: 'I am sad and scared for my players'

UPDATE: Members of the Afghan women's national football team, including the interview subject, have been evacuated. 

Please note: The name and certain personal details of the interview subject have been altered to protect her identity. 

"I don't even really know if I'm safe inside my home or not." 

Being bunkered down for fear of death is something few can relate to. But following the Taliban's capture of Kabul, that is the reality facing women in Afghanistan, including female football players. 

On Thursday afternoon, DW was forwarded an email by Discover Football, a Berlin-based NGO which "stands for an alternative perspective on women's rights and football worldwide." 

The email was from a member of Afghanistan's national women's football team and came with a plea: "I am writing you this email from a basement as my life is in great risk along with my entire family […] Please help me in this hard time. Please save my and my family's life." 

Discover Football immediately forwarded the call for help to their contacts in sports politics. The chair of the sports committee in the German Bundestag, Dagmar Freitag, has already sent a list of soccer players to be evacuated to the German Foreign Office.  

The list features players put forward by the international players' union FIFPro and includes the player who sent the email and will henceforth be known as Jane. 

'My nightmare has become reality' 

Jane's harrowing words echo those of many on the ground in Afghanistan.  

The videos of desperate men and women clinging to aircraft at Kabul International Airport have painted a heartbreaking picture following the Taliban's takeover. On Thursday it was confirmed that 19-year-old Zaki Anwari, a men's national youth team player, was one of those who lost their lives in Monday's chaos after falling from a U.S. military aircraft. 

For Jane, the desperation levels are just as high. "The Taliban don't accept women, so how can they accept a woman who plays football?" she tells DW during a gut-wrenching phone call. 

But it is not just her prominence as a footballer which means that she "will never be accepted" under the new regime.  

"I was also working among 40-50 men [in my other profession] as the only woman in my department," she explains. "The final thing is our families' political backgrounds. The Taliban could forgive us for our work and perhaps for playing football, but they will never, ever forgive our families' political backgrounds." 

At a press conference on Tuesday in which the Taliban effectively declared the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a spokesperson took questions from international media, including female journalists, and insisted that women's rights would be respected "within the framework of Islamic law." 

"We are going to allow women to work and study within our frameworks," said Zabihullah Mujahid. "Women are going to be very active within our society." 

The Taliban's public relations efforts since the takeover have been notably slick, as if designed to appease an international audience. For Jane, hiding in terror in her basement, they are empty words.  

"Everyone knows from 20 years ago that, when the Taliban come, they do whatever they want with women. They kill them, force them into marriage, anything they want," she tells DW. 

"Now they are searching house to house," she says. "In the last four days, I haven't been able to sleep because I fear they will come. It used to be just a nightmare, but now it's true. It's becoming reality. My mind can't accept it. Every time I think it's a dream and that when I wake up it will be OK. But when I see them outside in the streets, I feel so scared." 

Hard-fought battle for acceptance 

Jane's words don't just convey the terror of the situation she finds herself in, but also the great pride she takes in belonging to a progressive generation of women, one which made strides far beyond the pitch, where she had relished the opportunity to represent her nation. 

Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, efforts were made to promote the women's game in Afghanistan with a team eventually formed in 2005. Nine years later, the former adviser to world governing body FIFA, Monika Staab, discussed the progress made in the country. 

"Afghan women want to play," said Staab. "I know the Taliban and all these people who say women should stay at home, but things are changing we are now in 2014 and we have to give the girls the opportunity. We have to push them to move on to play, let them play." 

The final three words underlined the stigma that remained. The chance to compete in any sport was one of the many barriers broken on the battlefront for women's rights in Afghanistan. The progress made now puts those women who were empowered by it at greatest risk."

"When I returned to Afghanistan in 2009, I started playing for the national team and I was so happy," says Jane. "The same when I completed my higher education, again as one of the only women in my class, or when I got a job in my field. I felt proud." 

"I had lots of dreams for women in Afghanistan, for women's rights. I had lots of plans and suddenly, in three days, all my dreams, all my hopes have been dashed. There is no hope."

"There is no hope for independent women, free women. I will never accept their system. I will never, ever accept what they want." 

World needs to 'wake up' 

With the situation on the ground in Afghanistan fast-moving and volatile, the authorities' support systems are non-existent. Not that Jane believes the Afghan Football Federation (AFF) would be much help. "The AFF will continue its work without women," she says. 

While some of Jane's former and current teammates live and play abroad, many are still on the ground working second jobs in their home country. Jane hasn't had much contact due to dangers of making local calls, but had heard of some contacting the US embassy in the hopes of securing safe passage out of the country.

The United States isn't an option for Jane though. "For me, that country is invisible because they've done nothing for Afghanistan in the last 20 years. In 2001 they came, they bombed the Taliban, kicked them out and now they've given the whole country back to the Taliban, so they've done nothing."

Seeking safe extraction for her and her family, Jane speaks with defiance in the face of an uncertain future. Her family has begun destroying all traces of their former identities, apart from their passports. She never wanted to leave her country, but now accepts that escape may be the only form of survival. 

"I don't want to lose my life to this unacceptable government," she says. "I want to live and I want to come back to do something for my nation, for my people, for my women. 

"My message to the world is to please wake up from your dreams and see that people are dying in Afghanistan and do something, please. Not for me, not for my family, but for all of Afghanistan. The Taliban will destroy all the country, they will destroy all the hopes, they will destroy all the youngsters.

"Do not lose this country at the hands of these people." 

James Thorogood Sports reporter and editor, host of Project FußballJMThorogood