Kicking and dreaming

August 8, 2011, 10:37 amwomenshealth

WH investigates the inspirational Afghani women who are challenging social and political prejudices to play sport.

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Alissa Johannsen-Rubin

For decades, girls in Australia have played organised football freely and passionately. In stark contrast, a young women's team in Afghanistan has to fight family, neighbours, and society for the right to play. Learn why these women are willing to risk so much for the love of the game.


The rusted railings and uneven playing field of Afghanistan's Olympic sports stadium in Kabul are depressing enough, but it's the public executions that were carried out there by the Taliban that cast the longest shadow. Perhaps no one thinks of them more often than the handful of young women now occasionally permitted to use the field--the roughly two dozen members of the country's first female football club, the Afghan women's national football team.

It's only on rare days they practice outside, the large field is usually reserved for men - but when they do, the players sense the ghosts of the women who died there, most of them shot execution-style in front of thousands of men for crimes such as adultery.

"There was a lady in a burka who they stoned to death there when I was a child, and when we go to play, I think about her body under the grass," said Sabra Azizi, 20, who plays midfield.

The Taliban - a fundamentalist Islamic regime that ruled large parts of Afghanistan - were forced out of power 10 years ago (they're now fighting a guerrilla war to win back control), yet the barriers for women, especially in sports, remain monumental. In truth, it's a near miracle the team plays at all. The members, who range in age from 16 to 24, are up against widespread resentment from their relatives and neighbors, and threats from men who disapprove of women playing sports.

They're able to practice just three times a week for 90 minutes, occasionally at the stadium or in its gym, but more often at a helicopter landing pad on a base for NATO troops, where practices are interrupted by takeoffs and landings. No other facilities in the city are considered appropriate; the idea of a woman playing sports is still so shocking that it would be considered indecent for men who aren't relatives to see them practicing, even in uniforms that cover nearly every inch of their skin.

To travel to practice, some of the women must take four taxis because they live in outlying areas of Kabul--a sprawling, crowded city of 5 million people, where the air is thick with pollution from coal and wood fires, and most neighborhoods still have open sewers. When there's snowfall or a dust storm (or, yes, intermittent bomb explosions), the players' parents often keep their children from leaving the house.

The women's football team is used to not having public support, cheering crowds, or fans. It's rare to see a parent on the sidelines. At a recent exhibition game played in honor of International Women's Day, only one set of parents were among the small group of spectators.

"We are the first women footballers in Afghanistan, and we are trying to tell the world, 'Yes, we can do this,' " says Palwasha Dawood, 20, who plays defense.

"But we are always hearing, 'Football, this is not for women.' That is what people say."

Nonetheless, driven by their passion for the game, these players have managed to challenge the cultural oppression that severely limits women's choices in Afghanistan. And they play with a zeal that's clear to the Europeans who have watched them in action.

"You can see what joy they get from playing," says Henning Nielsen, marketing director of Hummel, a Danish sporting-goods company that recently decided to sponsor the team. "There is a lot they don't have, and they need professional training, but you can see what football means to them."

BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS

Afghan girls only began to participate in sports in 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban, when many families who had fled to Pakistan returned with daughters who had played sports in schools there. Television, which had been banned under the Taliban, also became increasingly widespread, and sports channels drew the interest of women as well as men.

The women's minister at the time, Massouda Jalal, who handled social issues such as domestic violence, went to Germany and was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for girls' sports, especially football. She asked if the German government could help the Afghans get started, and it did, offering seminars for Afghan sports teachers. By the end of 2005, the search was on for players for a women's national team, thanks to the open-minded leadership of Karamuddin Kareem, head of the Afghan Football Federation, which sponsors the men's national team.

At the time, only one girls high school in all of Afghanistan consistently offered a sports class. Now, three or four of them have become feeders for the team, largely because of the indefatigable work of a few physical-education teachers. One of them, Bilgis Azimi, says they struggle every day to make it possible for their students to play. She gets little support from the other teachers at her school.

"They tell me, 'Sports are for sluts,' " she says.

That's an attitude the players of the national team confront daily. Sabra's uncles berate her mother and father for allowing her to play.

"One of my uncles says, 'It is a shame,' and his son says to my brothers, 'If you are a man, your women will be covered. Maybe you are not man enough to control her.'"

On a recent afternoon, Sabra packed her sports clothes and athletic shoes and turned to go out the front door for practice, but her uncle, who was visiting, stepped in front of her.

"He blocked me and wouldn't let me go. I turned back to go into my room, but instead went into the bathroom and climbed out the window," she says.

Some of the team members receive harassing calls on their mobile phones from young men they don't know but who have somehow found out their phone numbers. Sometimes they call repeatedly and hang up. More frightening, though, are the whispered threats.

Roia Noorahmed, 16, the team's captain, arrived at practice one day in late April, visibly shaken. A male stranger had called her mobile phone repeatedly as she walked to practice, saying, "I need to talk to you. I need to see you." Then he warned, "Don't walk so close to the Ashiana mosque - I know what I will do to you," just as she was crossing in front of that mosque.

She scanned the crowd, wondering who had made the call. She looked at the cars filled with passengers. Anyone could grab her, force her into a car, and just say she was a bad girl who had run away from homeā€¦ and no one would do anything.

Like Sabra, everyone on the team has endured a trial of objections to be there. For Roia, it has been her mother's fears that the community would censure the family; she herself wed at 12, and she worries that Roia, at 16 and a known football player, will never marry.

For Raffura Qayom, 18, it is her mother's concern that football will interfere with schoolwork. For Khalida Popal, 23, who plays defense and is the team's finance manager, it is her father's disapproval, along with her relatives' concern about her trips out of the country to play against other teams.

"They think I will behave badly with men. They think no one will be willing to marry a girl who plays football. [To them, playing sports] means you are a bad girl and have affairs with all men," she says with a shrug, adding a sentiment that several of her team members have also expressed: "When a girl wants to become a football player, she has to decide between her future as a woman who will get married and football."

An exception is Zohra Mahmoodi, 20. A tall, slender midfielder, Zohra learned to play when she and her family were refugees in Iran. Her father, who ran a small factory that made footballs, let her come and kick balls after hours. She played with her brothers in the family's yard, and she played at school.

"It was our family sport," she says. "Everyone in Iran is watching football. We were watching football, playing football, talking about football. There, my big brothers supported me."

Now that she and her family live in Kabul, they're still supportive, but she can't practice at home because they no longer have a big yard. Still, she's determined to have a career in sports someday.

PLAYING UNDER WRAPS

Although women's troubles in Afghanistan are often linked to the presence of the Taliban, that vastly underestimates the depth of the prejudice women face. Long before the Taliban rose to power, there was a conservative attitude toward women's behavior. The Taliban took it much further: Women were required to wear burkas that completely covered their bodies and faces, and girls were not allowed to attend school. Now, years after the end of the Taliban's rule, the society remains rigidly restrictive of women's lives--what they wear, when they go out, how they behave. The laws have been modernised, but custom and culture dictate strict limits.


"Even in the gym at the Olympic stadium, you can see they don't feel safe enough," says their coach.

This is evident in the head coverings the players wear on the field. Those from more conservative families wear scarves that completely cover their hair; players from more liberal families wear broad bands that cover most of their hair. Those whose families are the least conservative don baseball caps. All of them wear uniforms of long pants and baggy, long-sleeved tees. Some women pull a skirt over their pants.

The risks of not covering up in this way are real. If a TV news program were to show a clip of the girls playing without proper head coverings, their families might stop them from participating altogether. The team has lost at least three team members for similar reasons, says Sabra.

Their coach, Wahidi Wahidullah, a gentle, serious man who is deeply loyal to the team, says the social stigma against female athletes inhibits the players from giving their all to the game. "Even in the gym at the Olympic stadium, you can see they don't feel safe enough," he says.

"When we go to a match, they're worried about their appearance, about their heads being covered, and they don't play well; they lose their concentration," he says.

The girls are painfully aware that the smallest misstep can sabotage them. "Did you see me out there with a very tight scarf?" Sabra pants as the team takes a break from practice. "If my scarf falls down, people will say, 'You see, she is a very loose woman. She can shake hands with any man.' But of course, keeping your scarf on tightly is very hard when you are running and using your head to hit the ball."

Raffura, who plays defense, says she's always on guard to prevent a glimpse of hair or flesh.

"I am always thinking, I have to take care when I jump so that nothing shows. We are thinking about our hijab [head covering] instead of concentrating on our game," she says.

But it was a different story when they went outside the country last fall. Hummel financed a trip to Bangladesh for a match against that country's national team. Suddenly, nobody seemed to care what they were wearing or if their sleeves were pushed up.

"When we went to Bangladesh, it was like flying; we were like birds," says Sabra. "I was jumping, I was running hard, I was playing. I was not afraid of my uncle's son. I thought, This is my time to enjoy."

THE WAY FORWARD

Until the game against the NATO women's team last fall, the Afghan women's team didn't know what it was like to play in front of a crowd, much less a sympathetic one. Khalida recalls looking up from the field and seeing people smiling and cheering, and she says she felt a rush of energy and wonder. The onlookers were mainly American military, but "there were lots of Afghans who came to that game," says Khalida, referring to the relatives and NATO workers in attendance.

"They were encouraging our team and clapping and waving our flag. When we see the men encouraging girls to play football, that is really nice."

A measure of how lonely it is to pursue sports in Afghanistan is how close the women on the team are to one another. A passion for football is their bond, and it's one that few others in their society understand.

"If I expressed what this means to me--well, it is my life," says Palwasha. "It is all I have. Even when I am feeling very sad, I want to come and play."

Khalida, who is sitting nearby, nods and adds: "You see, football is very hard, very difficult. But once you start playing football, you won't stop playing, you can't stop. It becomes part of your life."

In the USA and Australia, a multitude of studies point to the advantages women have gained from playing sports at a young age: increased confidence and self-esteem, higher levels of psychological well-being, a more positive body image. It's impossible to know whether the same benefits would come about in Afghanistan's vastly different culture, but if these young women continue to play, perhaps eventually--though it will take a long time--the idea of girls playing sports could become acceptable enough so that the population will see the impact.

In the meantime, the team hopes to go to Germany and Denmark this summer for games, with financial support from Hummel. All of the players are also determined to find a way to attend football camps outside the country and become qualified coaches and referees. Roia would like to see the team somehow get enough money to go outside Afghanistan for more professional coaching and be in a place where they could play every day.

Zohra plans to become a coach. She is one of a small number of women studying physical education at the Education University in Kabul and one of the two women chosen by the Afghan Football Federation to go to Iran this past spring for a course certified by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), the sponsor of the World Cup and the group that governs football leagues worldwide.

But still, she's torn by the idea of eventually leaving the country. "Yes, it is easier to go abroad to coach and play, but I don't want to leave. If we don't teach the next generation, if we don't make the future, who will?"