Thousands gathered at a stadium in Brisbane to watch Australia’s World Cup match against Nigeria. Among the crowd, sitting close to the pitch were players from the Afghan women’s national team, who are now exiled. They dream of representing their country again, as they have done in the past. Currently, however, the national team is not recognized by the sport’s governing bodies.
Khalida Popal, co-founder of the team, met with the players who now live in Australia as refugees who fled Taliban death threats. “It’s very difficult to believe we’re actually here,” Popal said, donning a yellow Australia jersey.
After the Taliban takeover in 2021, she called on the international community to help evacuate the team out of Afghanistan, and told players to burn their kits so that Taliban fighters would not attack them for playing competitive sports – now fully banned for women in the country. Today, she calls on FIFA, the sport’s main authority, to allow women and girls to represent Afghanistan on the pitch again.
They have the senior women’s national team, youth teams around Europe and even some in the U.S. and Canada. Popal asks “can these Afghan players from diaspora represent Afghanistan at international games? It’s not that difficult. It’s not like going to the moon.”
FIFA is currently unable to recognize any team unless it is first recognized by the “concerned” Member Association, in this case, Australia. The Afghan Football Federation also cannot stand up for women because it will be attacked by the Taliban, and shot, stoned or killed.
The Taliban has recently closed all beauty salons country-wide, leaving 60,000 women without a source of income and making it difficult to earn money to feed children. Human Rights Watch calls Afghanistan “the most serious women’s rights crisis.” Heather Barr, from the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Division, added “women and girls, they really see the walls continuing to close in on them.”
The Afghan women’s team were guests at the World Cup game for a gender symposium, invited by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. FIFA claims to be working hard to close the gap between men’s and women’s soccer, after decades of inequality. Soccer has even been banned entirely in some regions and countries. Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, said to the women’s team “I wish you were participating in this World Cup with your country behind you.”
Gender equality is one of eight key issues promoted at the Women’s World Cup, in partnership with UN Women. Craig Foster, a human rights activist who was instrumental in the Afghan team’s relocation to Australia, says that FIFA has more responsibility to bear than simply taking on a social campaign. In their gender equality statutes, there can be no discrimination against women in any member federation in the world.
The Afghan Women’s Team currently plays in Melbourne with a local club, the Melbourne Victory. They wear black and red as their team colors, representing the national colors of Afghanistan. Recently, the team took part in the Hope Cup, a competition for refugees. The goalkeeper, Fatima Yousifi, said that the players’ minds are never far from their families and friends back home, who fear for their lives and the loss of ambitions in a country where women don’t count. “I am encouraging them to watch the World Cup…because you can at least be having the hope that there are still women who are fighting,” she explained.
John Didulica, the director of Melbourne Victory, described that the Afghan team needs hope to play for their country after the trauma of having to leave home, but that every time an international game occurs and Afghanistan is not included, they lose hope. “There is a lot of tokenism. There is a lot of symbolism – but there’s not a lot of action,” he said about the superficiality of international governing bodies.
Foster urged other female players around the world and male allies to push FIFA to reinstate the Afghan team. It is unacceptable that in Australia women can dream of winning a World Cup at home, whereas in Afghanistan, women and girls are prohibited from kicking a ball.
Yousifi said after the game, “I know Afghanistan will not remain like that forever, someday it will change, because we are the changemakers. I believe in myself. I believe in my sisters.”
CNN 07/29/2023; BBC 07/24/2023