Female athletes in Afghanistan face new opponent: Taliban rule

Noura had always been an all-star athlete until the Taliban barred Afghan women from playing sports. Many women and girls who once played sports have been intimidated into submission through visits to their gyms, warning phone calls, and detainment.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
An Afghan women's soccer team poses for a photo in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2022. The ruling Taliban has banned women from sports as well as barring them from most schooling and employment. For this photo shoot, the athletes wore burqas to protect their identities.

Noura’s determination to play sports was so great that she defied her family’s opposition for years. Beatings from her mother and jeers from her neighbors never stopped her from the sports she loved.

But the Afghan woman could not defy her country’s Taliban rulers. They have not just banned all sports for women and girls; they have actively intimidated and harassed those who once played, often scaring them from even practicing in private, Noura and other women say.

Noura has been left shattered. “I’m not the same person anymore,” she said. “Since the Taliban came, I feel like I’m dead.”

Many girls and women who once played a variety of sports told The Associated Press they have been intimidated by the Taliban with visits and phone calls warning them not to engage in their sports. The women and girls spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they will face further threats.

They posed for an AP photographer for portraits with the equipment of the sports they loved. They hid their identities with burqas, the all-encompassing robes and hoods that completely cover the face, leaving only a mesh to see through. They didn’t usually wear the burqa, but they said they sometimes do now when they go outside and want to remain anonymous and avoid harassment.

The ban on sports is part of the Taliban’s escalating campaign of restrictions that have shut down life for girls and women.

Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have barred girls from attending middle and high school. Last month, they ordered all women thrown out of universities as well.

The Taliban require women to cover their hair and faces in public and prohibit them from going to parks or gyms. They have severely limited women’s ability to work outside the home and most recently forbade nongovernmental organizations from employing women, a step that could cripple the vital flow of aid.

Even before the Taliban, women’s sports were opposed by many in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society, seen as a violation of women’s modesty and their role in society. Still, the previous, internationally-backed government had programs encouraging women’s sports and school clubs, leagues, and national teams for women in many sports.

A mixed martial artist recalled how in August 2021, she was competing in a local women’s tournament at a Kabul sports hall. Word spread through the audience and participants that the advancing Taliban were on the city’s outskirts. All the women and girls fled the hall. It was the last competition the young athlete ever played in.

Months later, she said she tried to give private lessons to girls. But Taliban fighters raided the gym where they were practicing and arrested them all. In detention, the girls were humiliated and mocked, she said. After mediation by elders, they were released after promising not to practice sports anymore.

She still practices at home and sometimes teaches her close friends.

“Life has become very difficult for me, but I am a fighter, so I will continue to live and fight,” she said.

Mushwanay, the spokesman of the Taliban’s Sports Organization and National Olympic Committee, said authorities were looking for a way to restart sports for women by building separate sports venues. But he gave no time frame and said funds were needed to do so. Taliban authorities have repeatedly made similar promises to allow girls in seventh grade and up to return to school, but still have not done so.

Noura faced resistance her whole life as she tried to play sports.

Raised in a poor Kabul district by parents who migrated from the provinces, Noura started out playing soccer alongside local boys in the street. When she was 9 years old, a coach spotted her and, at his encouragement, she joined a girls’ youth team.

She kept it a secret from everyone but her father, but her cover was blown by her talent. At 13, she was named the best girl soccer player in her age group, and her photo and name were broadcast on television.

“All over the world, when a girl becomes famous and her picture is shown on TV, it’s a good day for her and she’s at the peak of happiness,” she said. “For me, that day was bitter and the beginning of worse days.”

Furious, her mother beat her, shouting that she could not play soccer. She kept playing in secret but was exposed again when her team won a national championship, and her photo was in the news. Again, her mother beat her.

Still, she sneaked off to the award ceremony. She broke down in tears on stage as the audience cheered. “Only I knew I was crying because of loneliness and the hard life I had,” she said.

When she found out, her mother set fire to her soccer uniform and shoes.

Noura gave up soccer but then turned to boxing. Her mother eventually relented, realizing she couldn’t stop her from sports, she said.

The day the Taliban entered Kabul, she said, her coach called her mother and said Noura should go to the airport to be taken out of the country. Noura said her mother didn’t deliver the message because she didn’t want her to leave. When she learned of the message – too late to escape – Noura said she harmed herself and had to be taken to the hospital.

“The world had become dark for me,” she said.

Three months later, someone who identified himself as a member of the Taliban called the family and threatened her. “They were saying, why did you play sports? Sports are forbidden,” she recalled.

Terrified, she left Kabul, disguising herself in her burqa to travel to her family’s hometown. Eventually, she returned but remains in fear.

“Even if my life was difficult, I used to have confidence in myself and knew that, with effort, I could do what I wanted,” she said. “Now I don’t have much hope anymore.”

This story was reported by the Associated Press.

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