Afghan Female Athletes Lament Taliban Takeover: ‘The Show Is Over’

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The safety and rights of Afghan women—including those who play sports—have come into sharp focus as the Taliban rapidly gains control of Afghanistan’s government.

Many women players and coaches in Afghanistan “are on the run,” said Khalida Popal, founder and former captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team and director of Girl Power Organization, an NGO that uses sports and education to empower and unify girls and women. “Their identities have been exposed,” Popal told Sportico in a phone call from Denmark. “They are a target group for the terrorists.”

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The Taliban’s record on women’s rights is disturbing. Although it claims to have relaxed some rules from when it controlled the country from 1996-2001, the group endorses misogynistic policies that prevent women from holding employment and seeking education. It also authorizes the use of stoning, lashing and other forms of violence against women accused of violating a strict interpretation of Sharia law. The removal of the Taliban from power led to opportunities for Afghan women in business, sports and education. The country’s first women Olympians competed in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, and they have competed in subsequent Olympics and other international events.

Those gains in economic opportunities and human rights are now imperiled.

“They are taking women and girls from their home,” Popal warned. She laments that she and other Afghan women made great sacrifices “to empower women and girls, make history and do a lot of things so that women and women and girls can be included” only to see their progress vanquished.

“After 20 years, it shows that everything that has been done in the country– with all the internationals coming in the country– happened only on the surface. It feels like it has been a show and the show is over. Everybody went home and in the country we’re left alone,” Popal said.

“Now, everything is gone,” she said. “Like everything is faded away. And that hurts a lot.”

Though all 22 members of the Afghani Women’s National team live abroad, they are deeply connected to their homeland. Shabnam Mobarez, the current captain of the Afghanistan Women’s Soccer team, lives in the U.S and is following the developments in her country closely. Two years ago she was traveling back and forth and encouraging young Afghan girls to participate in sports. “We reached a point where we could actually give hope for those young girls, so they could be soccer players in the future,” she said. Today, she is worried. “That hope has been taken away from them again.”

The collapse of the government led by President Ashraf Ghani came much faster than the U.S. government anticipated. Last year, the administration of former President Donald Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban that called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for, among other things, a commitment by the Taliban to prevent extremist groups from operating in the area. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden committed to the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces by Sept. 11.

On July 8, Biden expressed doubt the Taliban would take over Afghanistan. “The likelihood,” Biden assured, “there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” He also bluntly dispelled comparisons to the United States evacuating its embassy in Saigon in 1975 as North Vietnamese forces seized what had been South Vietnam’s capital city. “There’s going to be no circumstance,” Biden pledged, “where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy in the—of the United States from Afghanistan . . . It is not at all comparable.” In the weeks following, the Taliban swiftly seized control of provinces. Over the weekend, U.S. armed forces used helicopters to transport embassy staff to safety.

In a White House address on Monday, Biden vowed to “continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls, just as we speak out all over the world.” It’s unclear at this time if this assurance will be backed up by actions or policies. Likewise uncertain is the degree to which the U.S., which closed its embassy in Kabul while those for Russia, China and other nations remain open, will be influential on women and girls’ rights in Afghanistan.

“I don’t believe that we can talk peace with someone who brutally tortured women and children and killed people in Afghanistan 20 years ago,” Mobarez told Sportico in a phone interview. “I think the biggest mistake was to engage in peace talks with them in February. I think that made them believe they really could take over Afghanistan, and they finally got it.”