An Afghan ‘voice for voiceless sisters’

The Afghan women's national soccer team is thriving, in exile, as a special member of an Australian women's soccer league.

Tariq Mikkel Khan/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images/File
Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, sits at the Right To Dream Park in Farum, Denmark, Dec. 21, 2020.

Last summer, Khalida Popal knew the Taliban were winning in Afghanistan. But she hoped Kabul might hold. As program director of the Afghan women’s national soccer team, she hoped “my girls” had begun to make plans to leave.

It had been 10 years since Ms. Popal herself had fled, physically attacked at gunpoint for daring to play soccer and not be ashamed of it. But this was different. The players who had remained had continued to speak out against the Taliban. Western powers had held them up as a model of a new Afghanistan. Now, “all of a sudden, the enemy was outside their door,” she says.

Ms. Popal’s story could so easily be one more example of the failed promise of equal rights for Afghan women – herself a refugee in Denmark, her team in danger of terrible retribution. 

Instead, she’s writing a dramatically different ending. With her help, all her players escaped Afghanistan safely. Soon, she’ll travel to Australia, where the team is thriving as a special member of an Australian league, supported by one of the country’s biggest professional clubs, Melbourne Victory. And her own Girl Power organization in Denmark is helping female refugees find opportunities and play sports across Europe.

But in that moment some 12 months ago, the women of her team “were crying. They desperately needed help. And I asked myself, what can I do from Denmark?”

She could think of one answer: “I am the voice for voiceless sisters. I have a tool.” She could do interviews. She could call for help.

And help came, first in getting her team out of Afghanistan, then in bringing them together again on the field – half a world away in Australia. There are challenges, from understanding a new language to missing those left behind. But there is also joy. A recent story by ESPN had defenders barking instructions at one another and the team’s top scorer exuberantly emulating the famous goal celebration of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

It is a far cry from Ms. Popal’s own experience as a player in Afghanistan, when the women had to play what they called “silent football” during practices. No verbal coordination between teammates. No goal celebrations. Just the thump of a ball that stubbornly refused to stay quiet.

“Prostitutes,” they were called. At least if they stayed quiet, maybe they’d attract less trouble. They even had to play their “home” games in other countries. But Ms. Popal couldn’t stay quiet. As the first captain of the national soccer team, she says, “The foundation of the Afghan women’s national team was activism.” She accused politicians of corruption and abuse of power, preventing women from inclusion in society. That led to a physical attack at gunpoint in 2011. She fled, first to Norway, then to Denmark.

It’s an experience she knows all too well. Ms. Popal had already been a refugee once before – when she was a young girl and the Taliban rose to power the first time. “I have lived this life,” she says. Now, “I’m trying to use my experience to help these young women.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to An Afghan ‘voice for voiceless sisters’
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today