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Fears in Afghanistan for future of women's football

John Duerden
August 20, 2021

With the Taliban back in power in Kabul, there is widespread concern that women in Afghanistan will once again have their freedoms severely curtailed. The women's national football team and the local league could fold.

Afghan football players
Will we see pictures like these under the Taliban? Afghan players are seen here during a training session in 2015 in KabulImage: imago/Xinhua

There will be more interest than usual in qualification Group B for the 2022 Women's Asian Cup, which is scheduled to start on September 23.

Afghanistan have been drawn with Vietnam, Maldives and host nation Tajikistan. But whether the Afghan team will be allowed to go to Dushanbe, indeed whether it will even exist at all, will be an early indicator of the Taliban's attitude to women as they return to power.

The world has been stunned by the Islamic group's swift capture of Kabul two decades after a US-led invasion in 2001 ended their first five years in power. Back then, Kabul's Ghazi Stadium became known around the world, not for football, but for the executions of those who fell foul of the Taliban's strict laws.

Women could not leave the house unless accompanied by a male guardian and wearing a full burqa, they were not allowed to work and girls could not go to school - let alone play football. And there are fears that what the Taliban call the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" will rule in a similar fashion to the previous ultra-conservative regime.

The founder and former captain of the Afghanistan women's national team, Shamila Kohestani, was a child during the Taliban's first time in power and remembers it well. Now 33, she watched on August 17 as Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference in Kabul that this time, women would be allowed to work and study and "will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam."

Kohestani believes this confirms there will be no football for women. "They are saying they will allow women to work under Shariah law but the Shariah law that they know does not allow women to play sports," she told DW.

"I am sick to the stomach for the women of Afghanistan and especially the football team as I know that two days ago, we said good-bye to the women's football team."

Shamila Kohestani, the founder of the first Afghan women's national football team
Shamila Kohestani, the founder of the first Afghan women's national football teamImage: TEDxUNC/Creative Commons

Women's football in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's female footballers first said "hello" in 2010 when the women played their first international game - a fiendly against Nepal.

"We were not going to the World Cup or anything, that wasn't important," said Kohestani. "It was a first step towards freedom of opportunity, for the next generation that will be able to compete internationally and to show Afghan women to the world."

For the hijab-wearing players, it was about more than football . "We played in a male-dominated sport and we fought for that right. It wasn't handed to us. It changed my life completely and gave me the confidence to come out of the shell that the Taliban had put me in as a child. It was the same for all of us. It was an Afghanistan that I had never dreamed of."

Sport had been on the backburner in the country due to the Soviet occupation from 1979-1989, the Civil War of 1992-96 and then the rule of the Taliban. 

The men's national football team returned to international action in January 2003 and a decade later won the South Asian Championship. Then, the gunfire in Kabul was of the celebratory kind as the nation was united with joy. Hamid Karzai, president from 2001 to 2014, was photographed watching the celebrations on television. 

Men and women came together to watch games. "Some of the images of women in the stands screaming their heads off are some of the most joyful images I've ever seen coming out of Afghanistan," said Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch. "Women's participation in the audience at men's football matches was significant but more so were mixed crowds cheering wildly at women's football matches."

Female footballers training in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 2011 - a freedom which likely won't be permitted under the Taliban.
Female footballers training in Kabul, Afghanistan, in April 2011 - a freedom which likely won't be permitted under the Taliban.Image: x99/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

Afghanistan's sexual abuse scandal

It wasn't all celebrations and goals.

In 2018, a number of the women's team accused officials from the Afghan Football Federation, including president Keramuddin Karim, of sexual abuse. In June 2019, Karim was handed a lifetime ban from footballand fined 1 million Swiss francs ($1.1 million,€932,000) . Kohestani recalls it as a difficult but significant moment for women in the €country.

"When you are living as a woman in a deeply patriarchal country you get blamed for everything and it is hard to come out and say 'this happened,'" says Kohestani.

"It had never happened before in Afghanistan and nobody had dared speak out about this before. We had to fight hard but we showed the women of Afghanistan what we could do."

Kohestani fears that the victory, painful though it was, will not help the women under the new regime. "The Taliban will use this against us and say 'this is why we need to protect you, perhaps you can work in an office but you can't play football.'"

Football is a popular sport in Afghanistan - but the future of the women's game is now in doubt
Football is a popular sport in Afghanistan - but the future of the women's game is now in doubtImage: AFP/Getty Images/W. Kohsar

'Allowing women to play football would be a step too far'

An Asian Football Confederation official told DW that there had been no communication from the Afghanistan Football Federation regarding the upcoming games in qualification for the 2022 Women's Asian Cup.

With the world wondering what will happen in the country, the team's appearance in Tajikistan would be a powerful statement that the new Taliban do have different attitudes to women than in the past. 

That seems to be the message the new rulers want to present. On Tuesday, a Taliban representative was interviewed live on Afghanistan's 24/7 news channel TOLOnews by a female anchor.

Saad Mohseni, director of MOBY Group, which owns TOLOnews, tweeted:

"TOLOnews and the Taliban making history again: Abdul Haq Hammad, senior Taliban rep, speaking to our (female) presenter Beheshta earlier this morning. Unthinkable two decades ago when they were last in charge."

Mohseni said in a subsequent interview that the next few weeks will be telling regarding the Taliban's intentions.

But human rights activist Barr is doubtful that there will be real change from the previous regime.

"We are certainly hopeful there will be some differences compared to last time like allowing some girls to go to primary school at least but allowing women to play football would be a step too far and undermine them in the eyes of their supporters."

For Kohestani, the Taliban are making the right noises while there are still American and European troops in Kabul and the world is paying attention.

"Anyone who believes they have changed is mistaken," she said. "I haven't seen anything that has made me think what happened before is not going to happen again. Playing football and recruiting girls from all over Afghanistan was a freedom we had not felt before and it was beautiful.

"But now it is over."