Afghan female athletes at risk, future uncertain

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August last year dashed the dreams and hopes of millions of Afghan women who had made significant progress over the past 20 years.

For athletes and sportswomen, it has been difficult, especially after they were banned from playing sports under the new Taliban government.

Many are still stranded and fearing for their lives after the Taliban swept the country to regain control. Some were lucky enough to escape. They live in exile and fight for their colleagues, many of whom are still in Afghanistan.

“There are still 130 athletes to be evacuated. If they are found by the Taliban, it means 100 lashes or even death,” former Afghan judoka Friba Rezayee told RFI.

Rezayee, 36, the country’s first-ever Olympian, is in constant contact with female athletes who are still in hiding in Afghanistan. Many have changed identities because they fear being beaten, stoned or shot by the Taliban regime.

“Many still fear that dreaded knock on the door and it’s awful what they’ve been through. And for what? Being punished for playing sports.”

She now lives in Canada where she is the Executive Director of the organization Women Leaders of Tomorrow.

When the Taliban regime returned to power in Afghanistan, she was one of many people who helped female athletes leave the country.

Khalida Popal, former captain and founder of the women’s national team, now resides in Denmark. The team fled Herat with their close family and coaches.

Like Rezayee, she too mobilizes the sports community to give a voice to the women of her country.

“I see our women’s dreams fading away. This is a human rights issue and while I don’t want to be pessimistic, I hope youth and sports bodies will step up and give back what is due to women,” Popal said. RFI.

Caught in the crossfire

Both Rezayee and Popal attended the Play the Game conference in Odense, Denmark, which addresses some of the most pressing issues facing the sports world and in particular how the world of sports bodies has let down female athletes in Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban regime.

“Even though the regime almost immediately violated the Olympic charter by declaring a ban on women’s sport, the Taliban-controlled Afghan National Olympic Committee (NOC) is still funded by money from the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity program,” it said. Rezayee.

According to Rezayee, email correspondence earlier this year between the IOC and the NOC confirmed the transfer of $56,000 (54,775 euros) from the Olympic Solidarity program to the Taliban-controlled committee in Kabul.

But the money never seemed to reach the Afghan athletes for whom it was intended.

Before the Taliban regained control last summer, the outlook, especially for female athletes, was bright. They participated not only in the Olympics, but also in international and national tournaments.

Now many sportswomen have been hiding in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power amid a hasty US-led withdrawal of foreign forces, with some women reporting threats of violence from Taliban fighters if they are caught playing.

Afghan footballer Khalida Popal. © Murali Krishnan

An uncertain future

Last October, the Taliban allegedly beheaded a young volleyball player and posted photos of her head on social media.

Mahjabin Hakimi, a member of the Afghanistan women’s youth volleyball team, was killed and it was kept secret as her family was threatened not to talk about it.

Despite pledging to uphold women’s rights, the Taliban has significantly reversed many gains, including closing most girls’ secondary schools, banning women from most forms of employment, and preventing women’s sports.

The harsh restrictions have upended the lives of women, many of whom have become increasingly anxious and suspicious. Sport is just one of the avenues of women’s participation in society that is now deemed inadmissible by the country’s leaders.

“Most leaders in sport are just trying to get their votes and this brotherhood system they’ve created, especially in football. But we won’t let them forget us. We’re not giving up,” Popal said. .

The Afghan women’s national volleyball team has sought help from foreign organizations to get them out of the country, but so far without success.

Last year, human rights lawyer and Olympian Nikki Dryden was part of the team coordinating the cross-border lobbying effort to save as many Afghan athletes as possible.

“We evacuated more than 50 female athletes, including two Afghan Paralympians and their dependents, after lobbying from prominent sports figures,” Dryden said.

“I asked the IOC for help after the evacuations in Afghanistan. They said no,” she added.

Some athletes and their families have managed to get to safety, but there are others who remain trapped in Afghanistan and are desperate to leave.

Naomi C. Amerson