Women athletes in Afghanistan say the Taliban’s return to power has put an end to their dreams of playing sports at the national and international levels.
“It is over,” said 21-year-old Homaira Barakzai, the captain of Afghanistan’s national handball team, adding that “Everything has changed with the political change (Taliban’s return). Our only hope right now is to survive. Our future, as athletes, is unknown.”
After seizing power in August, the Taliban rolled back the hard-won women’s rights gained in the past two decades in Afghanistan. They did so by imposing strict restrictions on women, including a ban on women’s sports.
“It was very painful” to see that Afghanistan did not play in the Asian Women’s Handball Championship, said Barakzai. The games were held September 15-25 in Amman, Jordan.
Barakzai added that the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan capital and the chaos at the Kabul airport after the collapse of the Afghan government prevented them from traveling to Amman for the games.
“It would have been a major achievement not only for us (the team) but for Afghan women and Afghanistan if we participated and won,” said Barakzai, who led the Afghan handball squad for the past four years.
Barakzai said now that the Taliban again control Afghanistan, she will not be able to play for her country. “Our dream came to an end as the Taliban returned to power.”
The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan in August, barred women from work, secondary education and playing sports.
A high-ranking Taliban official told the Australian broadcaster SBS last month that Afghan women will not be allowed to play sports if they cannot “get an Islamic dress code.”
“It is obvious that they will get exposed and will not follow the dress code, and Islam does not allow that,” said Ahmadullah Wasiq, the deputy head of the Taliban cultural commission.
Mashhed Barez, a member of Afghanistan’s national handball team, told VOA that the Taliban ban on women’s sports is “very disappointing.”
She said the Taliban have not changed from what she heard about the group’s rule in the late 1990s.
“If someone thinks that the Taliban have changed, they are mistaken. The Taliban want people to live in poverty and misery,” Barez said.
Under Taliban rule in the late 1990s, women were forced to cover themselves from head to foot. They were not allowed to leave their houses without a male companion. The Taliban forbade women from playing sports.
That, however, changed after 2001 when a new Afghan government, supported by U.S.-led forces, adopted new policies encouraging girls to attend school and women to participate in the workforce.
In the past 20 years, millions of girls enrolled in schools, and tens of thousands of women served in the public and private sectors. Afghan women athletes have participated at national and international tournaments, including the Olympic Games.
But with the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan, circumstances have changed.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the Taliban of widespread human rights violations against Afghan women and girls.
In a statement last month, HRW’s associate director of the Women’s Rights Division, Heather Barr, said “women’s rights activists and high-profile women have been harassed and many are afraid and in hiding.”
“Because my parents were worried about my safety, I had to move to a relative’s house,” said Barakzai. “Now I cannot go out. I have to stay at home.”
She added that other members of the Afghan national handball team also live in fear.
Arzo Rahimi, chairperson of the Girls Football Federation in Afghanistan, told VOA that the international sports bodies should not forget about the country’s women athletes.
“They should not be left behind,” said Rahimi.
She added that athletes’ lives “are in danger under the Taliban,” and urged the international community to help with their evacuation to safety.
Last week, the world soccer body, FIFA, evacuated 100 football players and their families from Afghanistan with the help of the Qatari government.
The International Olympic Committee and a number of other sports bodies and countries have helped in the evacuation of dozens of other women athletes.
London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a statement this week that though the international evacuation of at-risk Afghans from Afghanistan ended two months ago, “those left behind face formidable obstacles to seeking safety outside the country.”
Freshta Ahmadzai, a member of the Afghan national basketball team, told VOA that women athletes, being at high risk, are “forced” to leave the country because the Taliban do not give women their rights.
“We live like prisoners at home. We will be forced to leave the country,” she said.
Ahmadzai called on the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to honor their pledges to respect women’s rights.
“If the Taliban allow women to work and play sports, I will not leave my country,” Ahmadzai said.