Afghan athletes: prisoners at home | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW

“I wish I didn’t exist,” writes Afghan athlete Amira (name changed). “I haven’t done anything wrong. The only crime I’ve committed is playing sports.”

Before the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021, Amira was one of the top judo fighters in the country. A few weeks ago, the Taliban raided her home looking for documents proving that the young woman had been part of the Afghan national team.

“Luckily she was able to escape. She hid in a local cemetery all day, praying the Taliban wouldn’t find her there,” Friba Rezayee told DW. “If they had found these documents in her house, she would have been tried in a Sharia court. That would have meant she would have been given 100 lashes or even publicly executed.”

Rezayee was herself a successful judoka in Afghanistan. She and track and field sprinter Robina Muqim Yaar became the first women to compete for Afghanistan at the Athens Olympics in 2004.

“It was a sporting revolution,” recalls Rezayee. In 2011, she fled Afghanistan for Canada. There, the 36-year-old founded the aid organization Women Leaders of Tomorrow (WLT), which provides higher education for refugee women from Afghanistan.

With its sports program GOAL (Girls of Afghanistan Lead), the organization also supports Afghan women in the martial arts. Rezayee remains in contact with about 130 Afghan female athletes who were unable to flee the country after the Taliban took over.

Afghanistan women’s judo team trains shortly before Taliban takeover

Kabul threats

These women continue to hide in their homes, “waiting, in a way, for the Taliban to knock on the door and arrest them”, explains Rezayee. “The Taliban sent them threatening letters. They were intimidated and they can’t come out.”

Judoka Amira describes the plight of the athletes thus: “We don’t need a women’s prison in Afghanistan. Our homes have become prisons for us. Afghanistan, says Mina (name changed), another judoka left behind, “has become a fatherless country where violent children have the power to do whatever they want with women and girls”.

The Taliban have yet to officially ban women’s sports by law. During the first Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) excluded Afghanistan from the 2000 Games in Sydney, in part because radical Islamists discriminated against female athletes.

This attitude of the Taliban has not changed, says Rezayee. “According to their interpretation of Sharia, women’s sport is a sin. They believe that sexual signals are sent to men because a woman’s body is visible during physical activity. Women are not even allowed to do exercise in a gym.”

There is a climate of intimidation and fear in Afghanistan, she explains. For example, a player from the Afghan national volleyball team was recently arrested and “the Taliban brutally beat her. She had terrible bruises all over her body. they play sports.”

Armed Taliban soldiers patrol the judo team's training hall

Armed Taliban soldiers patrol the judo team’s training hall

“The world forgets Afghanistan”

Rezayee and her team at WLT are still trying to get Afghan female athletes out of the country and to safety. But even if they succeed, there remains the question of where the women can stay next.

The Canadian government, for example, focuses its refugee policy on former local Afghan Canadian Army forces and their families, thus excluding female athletes. “Even in Europe, it is extremely difficult to obtain entry visas for them,” says Rezayee. The war in Ukraine makes things even more complicated. “All the attention in the world is focused on the Ukrainian refugees. And the world is forgetting about Afghanistan.”

The pioneer of Afghan sport feels neglected by the big sports organizations. Rezayee believes that the path of “silent diplomacy” with the Taliban that federations like the IOC are promoting is wrong.

“If they legitimize it, the Taliban will win. This will set a historic precedent: evil will prevail. But we want the principles of sport, education and human rights to prevail over gunmen .”

Not enough pressure

After the Taliban came to power eight months ago, only the ICC, the world’s governing body for cricket, threatened to expel Afghanistan over its stance on women’s sport. But eventually, even the ICC softened its stance.

Now the federation is apparently looking to buy time: it will “continue to support the Afghan men’s team to play international cricket while monitoring the direction of the sport in the country, including the development of the women’s game”, it said. she said after a board meeting in Dubai in early April.

Amira (name changed) is hiding from the Taliban in a cemetery

Amira (name changed) hid from the Taliban in a cemetery

Rezayee does not understand the reluctance of sports federations to act. “It’s the perfect time to put pressure: without girls’ education and without women’s sport, there is no legitimacy,” claims this Afghan exile with a Canadian passport. International pressure could also make a difference with Afghanistan’s radical rulers, she adds.

“Because even though the Taliban are married to their ideology, they are very sensitive to what people think of them. They are very brutal, they are mean. But they are not stupid either. They are aware that the everyone is watching, especially people on social media.”

The last bulb

No question of giving up for Rezayee, even if she often receives threats from her country of origin. “I’m used to that,” she replies. She continues to fight because she feels attached to her compatriots who play sports.

“Every time they call me or text me from Afghanistan, they cry and are inconsolable. Their courage to live is dying,” Rezayee said.

“When an athlete loses her motivation, it’s like taking a child away from a mother. The work that we do, and that I also ask the international community to do, is not just to save lives of female athletes in Afghanistan, but also to keep their hope alive. Hope is the last light bulb that is lit. We must not let that light go out.

This article has been translated from German.

Naomi C. Amerson