Context & Culture

Afghan Women’s Football: The players’ passion for the game


Kabul and Bamyan teams, referee and lineswomen congratulate each other at the end of the match. Photo: Kate Clark

This year’s Afghan women’s football tournament has kicked off with a match pitting Kabul against Bamyan, shown live on national television. Kabul proved too strong for Bamyan and won 10:0. Yet, the Bamyan players were unbowed: Kabul has many of the Afghan national team players on its side and female soccer players in Bamyan can still only play and practice inside. Today, it was the playing that was important, reports Kate Clark, as it has been every time she has been to a football match in Afghanistan.

For more on football in Afghanistan, see AAN’s football dossier.

This was the second year of the national Afghan women’s football tournament, a knock-out competition with the final timed to coincide on 2 October with the (much larger) men’s Premier League, both sponsored by Roshan and carried on Tolo television. (1) Today, title holders Kabul enjoyed what could be called a ‘crushing’ victory over Bamyan. Yet, even those who lost finished proudly. Everyone on the pitch had played with spirit and determination, and they ran and tried to the final whistle. There were also reasons for the lop-sidedness of the match, as Bamyan’s number 5, Adela in defence, explained:

I never had this experience in my life before. It’s the first time we’ve played on a field. We don’t have such facilities in Bamyan – we play in a gymnasium. My feelings are – we lost, but it doesn’t matter, we’re learning.

Also, while many of the Kabul side are also in the national team, some of the Bamyan players are new to the sport: 16 year old Kamala Amiri, also in Bamyan’s defence, has been playing football for just six months.

The crowds today were sparse, but this was day three of Eid when families are still visiting relations and, traditionally also go to the graves of those who have died. Nevertheless, quite a few women MPs and senior officials, journalists, and the (female) British ambassador and Afghan ambassador to Pakistan (male) turned up. Moreover, female as well as male fans are attracted to the regular matches in the men’s league which lasts from August to October. Two sections of the stadium are reserved for families and are always packed. Hopefully, there will be far more supporters turning up to see the rest of the women’s matches: the four teams, Kabul, Bamyan, Herat and Balkh, all play each other in the coming days in a knock-out competition. (The organisers hope that in future, there will be more teams playing.)

Football in 2000, 2002 and 2015

This is the third football match I have seen in Kabul (I am not a huge football fan), and all have been memorable and felt symbolic in their own, different ways.

On 2 August 2000, I watched the International Federation of the Red Cross (ICRC) play Maiwand Town. I was the only woman in a stadium crowded with men. “The football was dreadful,” I reported at the time for the BBC, “but the match itself was a spectacle. Thousands of Afghans having fun is such a rare sight. They even clapped – that’s illegal here. But more daring resistance was to come.”

At prayer time, Vice and Virtue police drove onto the pitch stopping the game and ordering everyone to line up and pray. They did not. Even with whips in hand, the police could not force the crowd to pray and, in the end, had to make do with players, officials and a small portion of the crowd lining up on the pitch for namaz. It was the only time I saw mass civil disobedience in this era. (2) Unfortunately, my report for the BBC was translated and broadcast on the Pashto service: Mullah Omar then banned sports events during prayer time. (3)

18 months later, on 15 February 2002, I saw a ‘Kabul United’ team play an international team from the newly arrived and British commanded ISAF, again at the national stadium. It was promoted as a ‘game of unity’, a suggestion of the British Ministry of Defence and supported by the English Football Association. The Premier League trophy was flown out for the occasion, along with former Northern Ireland manager, Lawrie McMenemy, who coached the Kabul side and what the BBC called “former Spurs legend Gary Mabbutt” who took charge of the ISAF side. “The match is a fantastic example of how football can be used in a positive way to bring people together,” said the sponsor’s representative, Nic Gault of Barclaycard. “”Hopefully it will help Afghanistan return to normality.” The match went well: ISAF won, but the Afghan side played well with their goal a superb overhead kick (final score: 3:1). Outside the stadium, however, was a different matter.

Many more men and boys turned up to the match than there was room for (tickets were about four cents). Those outside who could not get into the stadium became a wild, baying, violent crowd.

“Walls were scaled and hordes of spectators broke the Isaf lines. Within minutes, German security guards reached for smoke canisters to control the multiplying crowd. The mob rushed again, this time with a volley of stones for cover. The Germans, seeing a real match on their hands, ruthlessly fought back the tide of people, while outside the stadium, Afghan security police joined the foray, letting loose shots from their Kalashnikovs into the air. Bit by bit, man by man, order was restored.”

The BBC’s online reporter did not have the experience of being a woman trying to get out of the stadium. Leaving early, I really feared I was going to be lynched – ISAF had to give me an armed guard to get me to my car.

Symbols and passion

So what to make of the third match I have seen in Kabul – the all-women’s game today? The football was not great, but, as in 2000, it was a treat to be there.

In Afghanistan, events like today’s match are easily transformed into symbols: how lovely to have a drone with a camera filming a football match, rather than pinpointing a target for its missile to kill; how wonderful to see women playing football publically (wouldn’t have happened under the Taleban). MP Fawzia Koofi tweeted how proud she felt to see Afghan women playing football in the same place two women had been executed without trial 16 years ago (not accurate – this is a new, purpose-built stadium: the Taleban held their public executions in the nearby national stadium), but even so, the game appeared to be proof of progress and change. I also was delighted to be one among many women on and off the pitch, unlike 2000 when I was the only woman at the match and 2002 when I was one of a handful of female spectators and Kabul was not safe, a city of police who were still an armed faction in uniform and where the majority of women were still wearing burkas for their own protection.

It is still difficult for women and girls to play sport in Afghanistan: families may not approve and the question of where to play is difficult. It seems that on every spare patch of land in the capital and elsewhere, men and boys can be seen playing soccer, sometimes with two games played crosswise on the same pitch. Proper pitches can be booked from early morning until past midnight. Or the spaces are filled with men and boys playing cricket or volleyball. “For men it is easier,” explained 19 year national and Kabul team star striker Madina Azizi: “They have lots of places, but girls do not have enough good places to play. Here we have a paradox: Madina’s family, she said, “so encourage me and, when they see me on the TV… are so proud of me.” Yet, she says, because security is not good in Kabul, her family and those of the other players cannot let them practice in normal places. The Kabul players get two hours training three times a week at the stadium, but it is still difficult, said Madina, to get the exercise she needs.

Sponsor Roshan, one of the most equal opportunities employers in Afghanistan (and one that would probably do well globally on gender equality) and with many women in senior management, is also majority-owned by the Agha Khan Fund for Economic Development: of course, Roshan wants to promote the women’s game as it does the men’s. It also believes that, although the game is marginal now, the publicity and pride publically shown in the game is good for promoting the idea that women and girls can play sport. Shafi Sharifi, director of corporate affairs for Roshan, described how the mobile phone company has also built 26 playgrounds with small football fields for children round the country): “Football,” he said, “breaks barriers and brings people together.” For Roshan, promoting football, including women’s football, is a form of social investment.

The women’s game is still just a minor phenomenon in Afghanistan. Yet, the passion and drive of the 25 women on the pitch today – ­two teams plus referee and lineswomen – made this a memorable day in Kabul. Possibly, these women are also the small start of something more significant.

 

(1) The men’s league started in 2012: see AAN reporting here. Eight teams representing zones are selected through preliminary matches in the provinces, starting in March.

(2) It was being forced to pray that many objected to. Afghans rarely had the strength in numbers to disobey Taleban orders, but there were strategies of secret resistance too, ‘weapons of the weak’. One friend, someone who always prayed five times a day, would deliberately invalidate his prayers if forced by the Taleban to pray, for example, by not doing wadu when needed.

(3) AAN colleague, Thomas Ruttig, then working with UNSMA, also watched football during this time. His ‘match report’ can be read here.

 

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