“I wish I didn’t exist,” wrote Afghan athlete Amira (name changed). “I did nothing wrong. The only crime I committed was playing sports.”
Amira was one of the country’s finest judo fighters until the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021. A few weeks ago, the Taliban raided her home, looking for documents that would prove the young woman had been a member of the Afghan national team.
“Fortunately, she was able to escape. She hid in the local cemetery all day, praying that the Taliban would not find her there,” Friba Rezai told DW. “If they find the documents in her home, she will be tried in a Sharia court. That means she will either be given 100 lashes or be executed in public.”
Rezayee himself was a successful judo player in Afghanistan. She and track and field sprinter Robina Muqim Yaar became the first women to represent Afghanistan at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
“It was a sports revolution,” recalls Rezayee. In 2011, she fled Afghanistan for Canada. There, the 36-year-old founded the aid group Women Leaders of Tomorrow (WLT), which provides higher education for female refugees from Afghanistan.
The organization also supports Afghan women in martial arts through its GOAL (Girls Leadership in Afghanistan) sports program. Rezayee is in contact with about 130 Afghan female athletes who have not been able to flee the country after the Taliban took power.
Aganistan women’s judo team training shortly before the Taliban took power
Threat from Kabul
The women continued to hide in their homes, “in a sense, waiting for the Taliban to knock on the door to arrest them,” Rezai said. “The Taliban sent them threatening letters. They were intimidated and they couldn’t go out.”
Judoka Amira described the athlete’s dramatic situation this way, “We don’t need women’s prisons in Afghanistan. Our houses have become our prisons.” In a fatherless country, violent children have the right to do whatever they want with women and girls.”
The Taliban have not formally banned women’s sports by law. During the first Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) excluded Afghanistan from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in part because radical Islamists discriminated against female athletes.
This attitude of the Taliban has not changed, Rezayee said. “According to their interpretation of Sharia law, women’s exercise is a sin. They believe that sexual signals are transmitted to men because women’s bodies are visible during physical activity. Women are not even allowed to exercise in the gym.”
She explained that there is an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in Afghanistan. For example, a player on the Afghanistan national volleyball team was recently arrested. “The Taliban beat her roughly. She was bruised all over. The Taliban kept her alive because they wanted to show other female athletes that they were playing sports.”
Armed Taliban soldiers patrol the training room of the judo team
‘The world has forgotten Afghanistan’
Rezayee and her staff at the WLT are still working to get Afghan female athletes out of the country and safe. But even if they succeed, there is the question of where women can stay.
For example, the Canadian government has focused its refugee policy on former local Afghan troops of the Canadian Army and their families, thus excluding female athletes. “Even in Europe, getting an entry visa for them is very difficult,” Rezayee said. The Ukraine war made things more complicated. “The world’s attention is on Ukrainian refugees. The world is forgetting Afghanistan.”
Afghan sports pioneer feels abandoned by major sports organisations. Rezayee believes the path of “quiet diplomacy” with the Taliban that federations like the IOC are promoting is wrong.
“If they legalize it, the Taliban will win. This will set a historical precedent: evil wins. But we want the principles of sport, education and human rights to win over gun owners.”
Not enough pressure
Since the Taliban took power eight months ago, only the International Criminal Court, the world’s governing body of cricket, has threatened to expel Afghanistan over its stance on the women’s sport. But eventually, even the International Criminal Court eased its stance.
Now the federation is clearly buying time: it will “continue to support the Afghan men’s team in international cricket, while monitoring the direction of the sport in the country, including the development of the women’s game,” it said after a board meeting in Dubai in early April.
Amira (name changed) hides from Taliban in cemetery
Rezayee couldn’t understand the reluctance of sports federations to act. “Now is the perfect time to apply pressure: Without girls’ education, without women’s sports, there is no legitimacy,” demanded the exiled Afghani holding a Canadian passport. International pressure could also have an impact on Afghanistan’s radical rulers, she added.
“Because the Taliban are integrated with their ideology, they are very sensitive to what people think of them. They are brutal, they are evil. But they are not stupid either. They know the world is watching them, especially social media. the person above.”
last light bulb
For Rezayee, giving up is impossible, even though she is constantly threatened by her homeland. “I’m used to it,” she declined. She continued to fight because she felt loyal to her fellow sportsmen.
“Every time they call or text me from Afghanistan, they cry and can’t be comforted. Their courage to survive is dying,” Rezayee said.
“When an athlete loses motivation, it’s like you take a mother’s child. The work we’re doing, and the work I’m asking the international community to do, is not just to save the lives of Afghan female athletes, but also to keep them Hope. Hope is the last lightbulb left. We can’t let this light go out.”
This article was translated from German.