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OPINION: Don’t give up on Afghanistan’s women athletes

by Shireen Ahmed | Ryerson University
Tuesday, 21 September 2021 17:00 GMT

Afghan sprinter Kimia Yousofi, 25, exercises ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, at a stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan July 1, 2021. Picture taken July 1, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Taliban have suggested they may ban women from sport. Either way the country’s sportswomen are determined to get back on pitches and courts

Shireen Ahmed is an award-winning multiplatform journalist and sports activist who focuses on the intersections of race and gender in sport. She is a Sports Media and Sports Journalism instructor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. 

Competing as a female athlete in Afghanistan is about much more than just athletic participation; it is an indicator of the status of women and their inclusion in society.

It affirms women’s freedom of mobility and their right to earn a living through coaching or competing and to be seen as equal citizens.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul some remained hopeful that women might still take part in sport, even if only through small gatherings.

But the country’s new rulers this month suggested they may ban women from sport.

A Taliban representative said on Sep 9 he did not think women would be allowed to play cricket because it was "not necessary" and it would be against Islam if women players faced a situation where their face and body might be "uncovered," according to Australian broadcaster SBS.

Afghan women see their involvement in sport as a crucial part of their identity and say that the impact of the Taliban’s decisions could be felt for a generation.

Farkhunda Muhtaj, captain of the Afghanistan women's national soccer team and currently a resident of Canada, frantically helped her teammates to flee their homeland last month.

Even after making it safely to Australia, Muhtaj, a 23-year old varsity coach at Toronto’s York University, says her fellow players remain fixated on getting back on the pitch.

"Football is their identity. It remains a part of them working towards their dreams. Football is motivating them. It is the first thing on their mind," she told me by phone.

Contrary to many narratives in the mainstream media, the story of Afghan female athletes has been one of power and possibility.

The number of women and girls engaging in sports has been increasing.

From female boxers to a cricket team and a vibrant skateboarding community; each has sought to amplify the role sport can play in the lives of Afghan women and girls.

These sports teams also include Afghans like Muhtaj who live in the diaspora and who have trained remotely in order to compete for their nation on the world stage.

Sport is just one avenue of women participating in society that is now deemed impermissible by the country’s rulers.

A return to secondary school has not yet been permitted for girls although that may be subject to change, and working in a career outside the home is no longer a possibility for women governmental employees and likely other sectors as well. 

Women’s existence is being relegated to who they are behind closed doors at home. 

But sport has a unique way of rallying people and helping them overcome the odds.

The 29 members of the Tokyo 2020 Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) featured several athletes from Afghanistan including cyclist Masomah Ali Zada, Judoka Nigara Shahee, and Tae Kwon Do athlete Abdullah Seiqi who had previously fled the country due to conflict or persecution.

"The Taliban decision to forbid sports for women is not acceptable to me and to a lot of women like me who do sport,” Ali Zada, who is based in France, told me via Facebook messenger.

Perhaps Afghan women athletes will compete outside their country for teams like the ROT or perhaps Afghanistan will be banned from participating in the Olympics because their ban on women's sports goes against the Olympic Charter.

Afghan women who have fled Afghanistan may still choose to try and compete for their country despite their rulers not wanting them to participate at all.

The attachment or connection to one's homeland is not eradicated but made complicated due to cruel circumstances. Afghan women are not a monolith. 

There is hope that Afghanistan will stabilise and perhaps women may find a way back to the pitches or courts, even if they may be behind a wall or gate. 

It is certainly too early to lose all hope.

As Muhtaj looks to the future of her team, she says "the Taliban may have put up a ban on female sports and participation, but that cannot define our future or the progress we have made. Our dreams cannot be diminished".

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