Behind the Hijaab : An insight into the plight of the Afghanistan Women’s Football Team

Afghanistan National Women's Football Team is a great example of struggle, passion and love for the sport.


“You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, based on how it treats its women and its girls”- Barack Obama

The 21st century may have ushered in a whole lot of advancements in terms of science and medicine. However what it has degraded in, is human compassion and empathy shown towards fellow homo sapiens. The world is a complex place for everyone, but for women out there the world is like a jungle, more so for women belonging to countries from the Middle East and a few Central Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is normal for Women from these parts of the world to have their human rights and civil liberties trampled under the huge boots of society under the garb of culture, honor and shame.

One has seen football matches interrupted for almost everything- cars and people passing through the street if one is playing street football, people taking morning walks in the field, children roaming about. Professional matches have been stopped for crowd violence, excessive snowfall or thunderstorms raging about the area or due to power cuts. But seldom has anyone seen a football match being interrupted due to the landing of a military helicopter. The Afghan women’s national team faces this issue as a part and parcel of their daily training.

A military helicopter landing on their playing turf is however the least of their worries, because the focal point of dissent comes from society. The Middle Eastern society is such that it allows the male portion of the same to have unbridled profligacy, whereas maintaining a strict leash on the most basic rights that women deserve. The people in Afghanistan strongly believe that a woman should not partake in sports-a sporting field is not a befitting place for the female species of our planet. Any failure to observe this “unwritten” law, results in death threats being handed out to the girl, honor killings that follow the death threats are very common.

One out of 10 in the grand total of a 500 Asians who participated in a survey said that they would back the decision of “honor killing” if it tarnished their family’s reputation in any way. This is the finding of a survey done by the BBC as recently as 2000. In 2001, 565 women lost their lives to honor related misdemeanors in a place called Ilam in Iran.

Many children (female) dream of playing the game from a young age, witnessing their male counterparts do the same. Nonetheless parental disapproval for the game nips the possibilities in the bud. The girl’s who are spunky enough to play football even after society disapproves of it are generally handed out a cold shoulder and public shaming.

The most iconic of these rebellious young women is the ex-captain of the Afghan women team Khalida Popal. She has been on the receiving end of death threats, abuses since the day she spoke out about how women’s football should be promoted. She went into severe depression and finally when she could not take it anymore, escaped from the clutches of a society which is bigot in its approach towards the rights of women. She currently lives in Denmark with her parents.

Popal recalls her harsh journey from 2004 to 2016. When she started playing, Afghanistan was a stronghold of the notorious terrorist group-Taliban. The Taliban used the local stadium for the public beheading and hangings. The girls had to play in the backyard of the school and had to be extremely cautious so as not to make any sound. The Taliban were ten times as oppressive as the current Afghan society and more so about women.

Football has always been a source of freedom and it is indeed a brilliant platform to express oneself. The Afghan girls found a new taste of freedom and peace of mind in football which was an escapade from the harsh patriarchy around. The first time that Popal and the other girls went to a field for playing football, they were shamed, abused and rocks were thrown at them. The NATO command posted there felt remorseful at the plight of the girls and subsequently as an appreciation they allowed them to train at their ground. However there was a minor condition – they have to vacate the ground every time a military chopper would land on the grounds.

The team now has new coaches, new trainers, new sponsors, grounds but things were not so easy when Popal started. The struggle she had to go through during those years has laid the foundation upon which the current Afghan team is founded.

The Afghanisthan national women’s team has also caught the eye with some of its performances. The 2012 SAFF Women’s Championship saw them take a remarkable stride into the world of soccer by qualifying for the semifinals. They won the AFSO cup in 2016. Girls as young as 14 and highly talented have made it to the national stage. There is raw talent and eagerness to play the sport and achieve success in it, what lacks is the acceptance they are so desperate to achieve from the society. The people need to broaden their views and we are in the 21st century where a woman is equal to a man in all aspects and possibly far better in some. The time has come for the Afghanistan women to break down the shackles and put an end to the stereotypes that have been haunting them since the beginning of time itself.

“A society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated…” This is a quote by Khaled Hosseini from “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, and one glance at the struggles that KhalidaPopal and other women like her had to face, you will find an uncanny resemblance between them and Mariam – the lead female character of the book.

Photo by ResoluteSupportMedia