‘Their lives are in danger’: Afghan athletes sound alarm after Taliban seize power

The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan has raised serious concerns for female athletes in the country. Now that Sharia law will be enforced, they worry about losing the freedoms they have won over the past two decades and, in some cases, fear for their lives.

Afghanistan enjoyed a period of relative freedom after a US-led coalition toppled the Taliban from power in 2001. Women’s sports flourished in a context of greater respect for their civil rights. However, the Taliban takeover raises many concerns about the future of women’s freedoms in the country.

Under the tyrannical Taliban rule of 1996-2001, games, music, photography and television were banned. Girls have no right to education. Women were prohibited from working or leaving home without a male companion. And if they were accused of crimes, such as adultery, they were flogged or stoned to death. In his first press conference in Kabul, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid assured that women’s rights will be respected from now on, but within the “framework of Islamic law.”

The Taliban takeover is concerning for many Afghan athletes, like Zakia Khudadadi, who should have made history when she became the first woman to represent her country at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo on August 24.

“This is the first time that an athlete will represent Afghanistan at the Games and I am very happy,” the taekwondo champion enthused on 10 August in an interview with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) website.

But due to the Taliban takeover, the Afghan delegation will not attend the Paralympic Games. “Due to the dire situation in the country, all airports are closed and it will be impossible for them to leave for Tokyo,” said IPC spokesman Craig Spence.

The head of the London-based Afghan Paralympic delegation, Arian Sadiqi, gave Reuters a video of Khudadadi reacting to the Taliban’s rise to power. She says she feels “imprisoned.” She is currently hosted by a distant family and does not want to take the risk of going out, training, or seeing her friends.

“I urge all of you women around the world, institutions that protect women’s rights, governments, not to allow the rights of an Afghan woman in the Paralympic movement to be killed so easily,” she says, still hoping to find one. way to participate in the games.

Afghan Olympic flag bearers scared

More Afghan athletes of both sexes are raising their voices in the face of the Taliban takeover. One of the most moving messages was posted by sprinter Kimia Yousofi, Afghanistan’s flag bearer at the Tokyo Olympics, who wondered if she would be the first and last woman to play that role for her country. She was eliminated in the 100-meter heats in Tokyo, as she was in Rio in 2016.

“My dear homeland … How they left you alone. Dear people, to all the strong girls in my country … God protect you,” he wrote on Instagram. “I don’t know if it was the last time I carried that flag to the Games. I don’t even know if I can compete in a race to represent it.”

Yousofi’s fears were echoed by Afghan taekwondo athlete Farzad Mansouri, the country’s other standard-bearer in Tokyo, who asked users to “Pray for my country” on Instagram.

Afghan women’s football in danger

The concern is also palpable for Khalida Popal, who launched the first Afghan national women’s soccer team in 2007. A refugee in Denmark since 2016 due to death threats against her, Popal gave an interview to the Associated Press in which she shares her fears. He explains that he begged the country’s players to flee, leave their homes and not be caught by neighbors who wanted to see them imprisoned.

“I’ve been cheering [them] to remove social media channels, delete photos, escape and hide, ”says Popal. “That breaks my heart because all these years we have worked to increase the visibility of women and now I tell my women in Afghanistan to shut up and disappear. Their lives are in danger.

“They are hiding. Most of them left their homes to go to their relatives and hide because their neighbors know that they are gamblers. They are sitting, they are afraid. The Taliban have finished. They are going around creating fear. “

Following her stint on the national team, Popal retired from the sport in 2011 to focus on promoting women’s football in her country, a dream she continues to pursue despite her exile in Denmark. In the face of the Taliban, he also fears for the integrity of the Afghan football leaders who have promoted women’s football.

The fears of the Afghan footballers are shared in Europe. On August 17, the Spanish newspaper Marca asked about the fate of these athletes on its front page, a rare event for this sports newspaper. “What will become of them?” the headline read.

The newspaper tells the story of Nilofar Bayat, captain of the Afghanistan wheelchair basketball team.

“We are afraid, I am afraid for my life, we want to get out of here,” says the player, who has asked the Spanish Basketball Federation for help.

“Unfortunately, it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the future of Afghan sport. We can think about top-level sport, but the real catastrophe has to do with access to sport for the population, especially girls,” says David Blough, former director by Play. International NGO and member of the scientific committee of the Sport and Citizenship think tank, in an interview with the regional newspaper Ouest-France.

“The reality is terrifying: it was already difficult to develop the sport in the country, tomorrow it will be even more difficult.”

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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