Like many women her age, 28-year-old Khalida Popal has changed careers, is working on a degree, and is doing her best to balance work and family life. But this retired footballer is also a refugee from her home country, a survivor of threats and violence, and a leading voice for gender equality in sport in Afghanistan.
Khalida helped lay the foundations for the future of women’s soccer in Afghanistan, captaining the national team and rising within the administrative structure of the country’s football federation. But in a country still recovering from the oppressive rule of the Taliban, a woman coming to prominence in such a male-dominated sphere was upsetting too many people to ever fly under the radar. Afraid for her own safety, afraid for the safety of her family, Khalida left Afghanistan in 2011 when she was 23 years old.
Born in Kabul in the late eighties, before the Taliban began gaining traction in Afghanistan, Khalida had a well-educated and open-minded mother who was a sports teacher and wanted her daughter to engage in sports as well. She bought Khalida a pair of boots and a football so she could play with her classmates, starting at home what she wished to spread to other families with daughters: an interest in sport and the freedom for girls to play.
But, as the Taliban grew in numbers and influence, a notion as simple and fundamental as the right to play a sport regardless of identity became a major point of contention in Afghanistan.
Things came to a head in 1996 when, after several years of intra-country conflict, the Taliban entered Kabul and founded the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. By this time Khalida and her family had left Kabul for Peshawar, just over the border in Pakistan, where they waited out the Taliban’s chokehold on the country.
During this time period, ultraconservative interpretations of Islamic law meant women faced heavy restrictions on their freedoms, including being banned from working, pursuing an education or even accessing adequate health care. They could not appear in public without a male blood relative and were generally banished from public settings, to be neither seen nor heard lest they be punished. Women were publicly beaten and executed for breaking Taliban-imposed laws—some of them in soccer stadiums, such as Ghazi Sports Stadium in Kabul, where it was said that so much blood had soaked into the ground that grass would no longer grow.
Khalida and her family were finally able to return home after the Taliban fled Kabul in November 2001, following a joint American/British bombing and ground troops moving on the city.
Khalida’s mother picked up right where she left off, forming a girls’ football club at her school in 2004 and campaigning for other schools to establish clubs. Together, the clubs went to the Afghanistan Football Federation and asked for a women’s football committee. Then- and current president of the AFF, Keramuddin Karim, was more forward-thinking than some of his contemporaries and needed little convincing.
“Society was trying to discourage us from playing football,” Khalida said. “By standing in front of us and giving us warnings to stop playing football, or sometimes they were throwing rocks towards us.”
In 2005 the AFF organized a women’s football tournament with eight teams participating. The federation selected the best players from each team, one of whom was Khalida, and planted the seeds of a national team under the guidance of German head coach Klaus Stärk, who at the time was also working with the men’s national team.
The national team started with just four girls, aged 15 to 17, all from well-educated families like Khalida’s. They too had fled Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule, traveling to Pakistan and Iran to await the day when they could return home. The girls added to the team tended to be in this age range, without much formal training, just the kickabouts they would play in as children in spite of the pressure from family, friends, and neighbors to follow a more traditional path.
In top women’s footballing countries it’s widely accepted that most national-team-level players would have been regularly touching a ball from age five or six, with organized play for at least several months out of every year. Despite the 10-year experience gap in getting down the fundamentals in a formal coaching setting, these players were prepared to build a FIFA-competition-standard team.
But although the Taliban were technically no longer in control of Afghanistan—after the fall of Kabul their forces fled south and continued an insurgency against coalition forces—that didn’t mean attitudes in the country had magically changed overnight. Even now it’s not easy for women in Afghanistan to compete at any level of football. And in those early days, it was “difficult and risky,” as Khalida put it via email.
“Society was very closed and they were not ready to accept changes and see women’s development, so it was more challenging for us to play as the first women’s football players team,” she said.
Even with the sanctioning of their federation and the continued support of president Keramuddin Karim, it was difficult for the players to actually engage in football of any kind. Attitudes towards women—especially women who dared leave the sphere of home and family to engage in something as visible and male-dominated as football—created a host of problems ranging from inconvenient to actually dangerous. Something as simple as going to practice was a logistical nightmare, with the players harassed and threatened in the streets.
“Society was trying to discourage us from playing football,” Khalida said. “By standing in front of us and giving us warnings to stop playing football, or sometimes they were throwing rocks towards us. And sometimes men were grabbing our scarves, clothes, or taking footballs from us.”
The players lost a lot of equipment this way; scarves, school bags, footballs, and more disappeared into the hands of street harassers who couldn’t reconcile this new future with the attitudes of the past. Even more chillingly, Khalida mentioned suicide bombers, who would wait for the girls to go to training.
Other families were understandably scared and would forbid their daughters to play football, or any sport at all.
“It’s very difficult for women to be active in society,” Khalida said, “Because it’s a kind of tradition in Afghanistan when women turn 17 or 18 they should get married and start a new family life. And it’s a kind of shame or taboo for families to have their young daughter at home without [being] married. People will start talking bad about the family and the girl.”
“When a girl starts playing football it’s nearly impossible to get married, since women’s football is not in Afghanistan traditional, and players get called by bad names. For example ‘prostitutes’ and things like that. So before starting football the girl must think about the risk of not getting married in the future and starting their own family life, or play football ‘til the time they [retire].”
Actively harassed by many individuals, the team was also determinedly ignored by much of society. Local media were slow to start covering the women (not that international media were any better). If they got any airtime at all, it was a soundbite on the local news that lasted less than a minute.
But for Khalida and the others, it only made them more determined to continue playing, shaping the world for the players they knew would be walking in their footsteps. They continued to play, and continued to campaign for media attention.
“For us as Afghan football players media was…a very important tool to stand for our right and raise our voice and encourage more women to [play] sport and bring the culture of sport in the country,” said Khalida.
“In the beginning when we started playing football, it was difficult to catch the attention of media. But after a few years the local TVs were showing more interest in women’s football,” said Khalida. “The TVs were not showing the full games, but only in sports news for less than a minute. The TVs were giving the report with a short video of girls playing football. But now it has changed and TVs are showing much more interest in women’s football and [on] more than three or four local TVs. They invite the girls for TV interviews and they also show the women’s football league on TV.”
Afghanistan does have an eight-team women’s league competition that began in 2014. That first tournament didn’t attract much in the way of spectators, but that wasn’t necessarily its primary goal. It’s hoped the league will help the AFF identify new talent for the national team as well as spread the sport to cities beyond Kabul. With sporadic chances for international competition, club play is crucial to the sport’s development in Afghanistan.
The early years were rough. Afghanistan earned a FIFA ranking in 2007 by playing in a tournament in Pakistan and then playing Pakistan’s own newly-formed women’s national team, but by 2010 they were still playing local NATO forces and practicing on NATO fields — between helicopter landings — three times a week.
International friendlies finally arrived in 2010, a series of three games in December as part of the South Asian Football Federation Women’s Cup. Their first game was December 14, 2010, a 13-0 drubbing at the hands of Nepal’s national team. Then a 3-0 loss against Pakistan two days later, and finally a result in their last game of the cup: a 2-2 tie with Maldives.
All that hard work was finally paying off. Standing at the forefront of the team was Khalida, who went from being captain and assistant coach of her club team to captain of the national team. She became one of its most prominent voices, turned to by the media for interviews and seen and heard on television and radio.
“I was talking about women’s football and encouraging women to be active and participate actively in society,” Khalida said. “In a very short period I became a public figure. I was growing very fast in the sports world in Afghanistan and [becoming more of] a very strong voice for women’s sports.”
The sport took off, growing from 340 registered youth and adult female players in 2006 to over 2000 players today, spreading from Kabul to other provinces across the country. Khalida herself rose in rank and stature within the Afghanistan Football Federation. She attended coaching courses and became a national youth team coach. She took on the role of the AFF’s finance officer, and then moved to head its foreign relations department, the first woman to work for the federation in its history.
“It was not easy,” Khalida said, “to be the first woman who worked amongst all those men who were not used to getting their salaries from a woman, and the woman was younger than them.”
But she was growing the game, just as she and her mother envisioned back when they formed their first club.
“I had huge media support,” Khalida said. “I got so much encouragement from national and international media, and also from different national and international women’s organizations. Women’s football became very popular and active. Many doors of opportunity opened for both women’s coaches and the football players. And more job opportunities for women as a coach and as an employee in the football federation.”
There were a few hiccups along the way. Such rapid growth created room for people to take advantage of Khalida and her teammates. In 2007, Afghan author Awista Ayub visited the team and got to know some of the players, turning the experience into a book called Kabul Girls Soccer Club. The book about the team’s founding is an interesting read, but when I asked Khalida about it she was unenthusiastic.
“There was a group of Afghans who came from the United States and took some photos and made some interviews with the girls,” she said, recalling meeting Ayub in 2007 and 2008. “[They] took two girls symbolically to the US and did a lot of campaigning for themselves. Since women’s football was so young in the country and we didn’t have so much access in media and all those opportunities, some people like Awista and some others came in the country, took some photos, and took advantage under their name that they have made the Afghan women’s team, and they made the Afghan women’s clubs, which was not true. And unfortunately most of the Afghans living abroad like Awista took the opportunity and got projects and money from supporters and donors, but we never saw that. Some came and made documentaries. Some came and wrote books and fake stories, which wasn’t true. And in reality most of those people took advantage of that.”
“I want to see the women’s football team be stronger and stay together and win international football matches…To see more and more women coaches, women referees, women leaders.”
All of this attention came with another kind of price: while the sport was growing, not everyone was pleased to see it becoming a more legitimate option for women. While the Taliban weren’t in control of the government anymore, that by no means erased decades of systematic disenfranchisement of women, and now conservative voices had a very public target in the form of the captain of the women’s national football team.
“There were some leaders and some powerful men in the country and in sports areas that were scared of my development, and they are scared of losing power for a girl who was just 23 years old,” said Khalida. “They were making the situation worse for me. And they were making more troubles and challenges for me.”
They threatened Khalida’s life. They threatened her family. They started a smear campaign against her, spreading rumors that she was anti-Afghan culture and against Islam, that she was encouraging girls to stand against tradition and religion. They gave her ultimatums: stop playing football and stop being a leader in the game. Stop speaking about advances for women in sports. The threats became action: both her brother and her coach were beaten. They told her brother to stop allowing her to play, and told her coach to stop working with her team or to banish Khalida from football altogether.
In April 2011 Khalida left Afghanistan. Now 28, she lives in Denmark with her mother and brother, studies at the Copenhagen Business Academy, and works for sports outfitter hummel International, whom she helped launch a new uniform for the Afghanistan Football Federation that integrates a sport-safe hijab into a base layer shirt for observant Muslim female players.
“I was not giving up. I was getting stronger until the time that they gave life threats to me and my family,” Khalida said. “And I came to the point that I had to choose between my family and my love, which was football. I was under so much pressure and stress, and I asked for help from governmental organizations, but nobody helped me. At the end it got worse for me and I had to leave my country and stay underground in India until the time hummel helped me to get out of India and come to Denmark. Then I seek asylum here and got permission to stay.”
She is still involved with Afghan women’s football through sports organizations in the country and the Cross Cultures Project Association, a Danish non-profit that specializes in working with divided communities through football. The ultimate plan is for her to work for hummel full time while continuing to support Afghanistan football.
I asked her where she hoped her country’s women’s program would be in the next five or 10 years, a few cycles down the line.
“I want to see the women’s football team be stronger and stay together and win international football matches,” she said. “Prove it that women’s football and women football players are the best. To see more and more women coaches, women referees, women leaders.”
Since Khalida left, Afghanistan has played a handful more friendlies, mostly as part of the South Asian Football Federation Women’s Cup, which runs every two years. The team played five games in 2012, starting with their first ever win, 2-0 against Qatar. They went unbeaten the next two games, 1-1 against Maldives again and 4-0 against Pakistan.
2013 was a good year, with two wins against Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Then three games in the 2014 SAFF Cup, all losses. Their last international friendly was November 17, 2014, a 12-0 loss to India, followed by a 2015 loss to Japanese club side Angeviolet Hiroshima. Over 13 international games they are now 4-2-7, a decent record for a team that started with four teenagers and that has had sporadic chances to develop over the past decade.
Oppressive voices fearful of change did manage to force Khalida Popal out of the country, but they certainly didn’t silence her. Khalida continues to work for the betterment of women’s soccer in Afghanistan and to speak out about the power of sport to create progress for women. Though it came at great personal cost, her voice may be even more prominent than before, and it behooves us all to listen, to remember that sports are for everyone, and everyone deserves to play in safety.