The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 enabled women athletes to represent the country at the Olympic Games for the first time.
Even so, the progress was only gradual; Afghanistan has sent 23 athletes to the Games since then, yet only four have been women.
Now, the Taliban’s return to power following the American withdrawal this summer threatens to put an end to what little progress has been made.
On September 8, the Taliban’s cultural commission official Ahmadullah Wasiq announced a ban on women’s sports, deeming their participation “not necessary”.
Afghanistan’s new sports chief Bashir Ahmad Rustamzai appeared to tacitly support this stance on September 15, when he declined to confirm whether women would still be able to participate in the 400 sports that comply with sharia law.
Amid protests in Kabul demanding women’s rights to education and work, many women athletes have fled for their lives, while others have stayed in the hope of reform.
Here are some of their stories, in their own words:
‘I wanted to live by my own rules’
Friba Rezayee, 36, became Afghanistan’s first female Olympian when she competed in judo at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
She moved to Vancouver, Canada, in 2011 and founded Women Leaders of Tomorrow, a non-profit organisation focused on sports and education in Afghanistan.
“When I returned from the Olympics, I went through a lot – family tragedy, physical abuse, and depression. The youths and feminists supported me, and believed it was going to be a revolution for human rights and gender equality in our country.
But there were the fundamentalists, the dark-thinking people who disapproved of my participation. They thought that it was a sinful act, that it was against sharia law, Islam and our Afghan culture.
“But my family was very supportive. When I lost my bout, I called my father and my brothers from Athens using one of those satellite phones. I told them I was sorry I let them down. My father told me my participation was like man’s first step on the moon. It took over a hundred years for Afghan women to compete in the Olympics. I’m honoured to be the first one but I don’t want Kamia Yousufi to be the last.
“I wanted to live by my own rules. I didn’t want to answer to anybody, not my family, not my community. There were times I was scared, but I was determined to keep my freedom as it was so precious to me.
“The athletes need to be evacuated from Afghanistan because they are at risk, especially those who were outspoken about women’s rights and publicly condemned the Taliban. The future of Afghan women looks very dark if the Taliban remains in power. There definitely won’t be any dojos. They will be forced into child marriages with Talib fighters, and they’ll be kept as breeding stock.
“As much as there’s devastation and uncertainty, the solidarity among Afghan women is incredible. We’re not going to give up without a fight. I do believe that Afghan women and the people of Afghanistan are strong. Democracy and freedom will win over the militant group. It’s extremely dangerous to confront the Taliban, to join the protests, but there is hope.”
‘I left to save my life’
Meena Asadi, 28, is a karate practitioner and South Asian Games multi-medallist. She lives in West Java, Indonesia , where she founded the Cisarua Refugee Shotokan Karate Club.
“I was just a little girl when the civil war broke out and the Taliban took over Afghanistan with its first government. I don’t have any good memories of my childhood. When I saw boys go to school and play sports, I wondered why I couldn’t do the same. Why should being a girl hinder me from sports?
“I wanted to teach karate to my fellow Afghans, especially girls. I opened a karate club in Kabul in 2011. But extremists threatened me as the club allowed boys and girls to train together. I had to leave the country to save my life. It was a difficult decision for me; my hopes and dreams were destroyed.
“I have been living in Indonesia for six years. I don’t know when these uncertainties will end. Many refugees don’t have basic human rights. I saw refugees without anything to do, always at home alone, but I knew that sports could help reduce mental health issues. I founded the Cisarua Refugee Shotokan Karate Club in January 2016 to support other refugees.
“The world must not ignore the real face of the Taliban. I hope the dark moment of my country will end soon, and I will see women being able to live their lives.”
‘We planned in school how to escape the Taliban’
Marwa Ali, 20, is a first-year student in university and a football player. She lives in Kabul.
“About four years ago, my teachers would plan how to escape the Taliban in case they raided our classroom. Now that I’m in university, I haven’t returned to school because the Taliban won’t allow us.
”Girls can’t go out of the house, and if we do go, we need to be with a male guardian. But since my father passed away, it’s difficult for me to go out at all.
“I started playing football because I love Real Madrid. In the past, before the Taliban returned, there were many people who enjoyed football. Now, not so much. Most of the girls’ families don’t know they play football, they don’t tell their families. If they found out, they wouldn’t let them.
“I last played football about two months ago. Most of my teammates have left Afghanistan, and those who stayed have not been able to play. If I could leave Afghanistan, I would. But in Kabul, I’m sure that it’s impossible even to go to a football pitch.
“I hope that one day all girls can chase their own goals and dreams. I want us to be able to study, to play football, to go out of our homes and be free. I just want a free life for all girls in Afghanistan.”
‘I stopped eating so I could practice karate’
Zakia Hujjat, 23, is from Daykundi province. She is a karate practitioner and third-year computer science student in university.
“When I started training in karate, I had to hide it from my family. My father told me that I should leave sports to my brothers, as sport is only for men. To convince him, I decided to stop talking to him and I went on a hunger strike. He finally granted me his permission and began to support me.
“It was unusual for fathers to support their daughters in sports, so many people would look menacingly at me and threaten to beat me. It was challenging for me even before the Taliban came back.
“I trained orphan girls for two years. I told them they are the future of our country, that they should win medals for Afghanistan. I used to be the one encouraging young athletes, but now I feel worried. I’m the one who feels hopeless. All the karate clubs are closed for girls. If a male trainer allowed a girl to practice karate, they would beat him.
“If it continues like this, I see nothing in my future. I was determined to stay in my country to bring pride and medals. But now I am forced to leave to stay alive, because we are all in danger.
”My only dream was to be like Rohullah Nikpai [an Afghan taekwondo practitioner and two-time Olympic bronze medallist]. I want to be an Olympic gold medallist, but I didn’t want to just keep dreaming. But now, it feels like this will remain a dream.”
This article was first published in Asia One . All contents and images are copyright to their respective owners and sources.