Playing football may be a normality for men and women in most countries in the world, but not in Afghanistan where girls are prohibited from practising any sport. Khalida Popal, the former women’s national team captain, told Valhmor Camilleri how she put her life at risk to help Afghan girls go against the Taliban regime and start playing the Beautiful Game…
Khalida Popal has been fighting all her life to see Afghan women being given very ‘basic human rights’ such as going out to play football with their friends across the streets of Kabul.
Women living in a country like Afghanistan have to fight for very basic fundamental human rights, such as education, playing sport, and being given access to any social activities in their own towns and cities. It’s no coincidence that the United Nations has described Afghanistan recently as one of the most dangerous countries for women.
“It was not easy to grow up in a dangerous country like Afghanistan where you are told every time you cannot do this because you are a girl or you cannot go to a park because you are a woman.
“The message sent by the authorities there is ‘you belong to the kitchen, you need to learn how to cook and serve men, you need to prepare to get married, you need to prepare to become a mother.
“There have been hundreds of women that ended up being shot or killed just because they stood up for their rights in my country.
“Growing up in Afghanistan, the only medium that existed for me to move out of that negative environment was to play football.
“Those one or two hours of football was a way to experience freedom and not think about anything else but just the beauty of that game. The love for the game came into my life at a young age, playing football with my brothers in the streets.
“But that freedom was taken away from me because when I became a teenager and my body started to form, the pressure from the community was too much as they said that it was against our culture. The mindset was that girls cannot play with boys, but stay home and do other things that women are doing.
“Something I loved so much was taken away from me just because I was a girl. It was painful and that is why I decided to rebel.”
Popal went on to form a team for herself with the assistance of a coach.
“The coach helped me to cover like a boy. I covered my hair, wore baggy clothing, and played as if I had a disability and couldn’t speak so as not to be recognised as being a girl,” she recounts.
“It went on for quite a long period where I enjoyed playing football but could not express my emotions and that was painful. Unfortunately around the age of 14 one of the boys discovered and I had to stop.”
Khalida had two options, either to stop or continue her fight, and she chose the second option.
“I went to my school and started campaigning in classes to form my team. Within a few weeks, I had 20 girls in my squad.
“We played football in a stoney dusty backyard of the school, away from the public and teachers’ visibility.
“We played either before or after school. We used bags or stones as goalposts and had a very old football to play with.
“One day, the man outside school recognised our voice of happiness and a group of men jumped over the wall and when they found us they threw stones at us and verbally and physically assaulted us just because we were playing football.
“They took our bags and threw our books around. Got a knife and damaged our football, which was the most precious gift for us.”
Inevitably, many girls were afraid and stopped playing as they had no support from their families and that is when Khalida realised that it was time she started to fight for women’s rights in her country no matter what.
Khalida found great support from her mother, who was a teacher and went to speak to parents of many girls to try and convince them to let their daughters play football.
“It was not easy as my mum got waved away by several families and was putting her job at risk as the school principal didn’t know anything about it. In fact, when she discovered what my mum was doing, she got violent with her even though she was a woman like her,” Khalida said.
“But luckily my mum had some friends from the Education Ministry who let her continue with her job. I was still treated unfairly by some teachers who used to make me fail in many subjects even though my examination papers were very good. The same happened to some of my classmates who were forced to change school, just because we wanted to play.”
In 2007, the first Afghanistan women’s national team was formed and they where invited to compete in the Pakistan league.
Khalida captained the side and they went on to win the competition. Their success got a lot of media coverage in Afghanistan with their matches streamed by national television.
Instead of being a catalyst of change, this tournament saw many players in the team being recognised by their families and they were forced to stop playing football. It was here that Khalida felt that it was time for her to take her fight to the next level and form part of the football federation.
“Half of the team were not allowed to play football again but the others continued football,” she said.
“For me, playing football was not enough and I wanted to be in the decision-making of women’s football in the country and I started working with the Afghanistan federation. I had my education settled by that time and I got the job as head of women’s football.
“It was very tough as I was the only woman on the board and I had to work three times as much to prove myself.
“With many NATO countries in the countries, I made a lot of contacts with NGOs from Germany and the USA who helped me to generate the finances to take women’s football forward as the federation, despite having the money available, didn’t want to use them for that.”
During her time, Khalida managed to work a lot in football education and started programmes on national team grassroots with clubs as well as supporting coaching courses.
“My stint turned out to be a great success as when I started there were 100 females playing football but when I left that number rose to over 3,000,” she said.
Khalida took her fight to another step when she profited from all the media attention on women’s football to tackle other important issues curtailing her country such as corruption and how it affected the role of women in society.
In her campaigns, she called up members of the country’s leadership by names, and that put her in a very dangerous position, with her life at a very serious risk.
“It got so bad that members of my family got physically attacked and I couldn’t get out of my house,” she recounts.
“It was here that I decided that I needed to flee my country. I had some friends who took care of my paperwork and I left for India with just a small backpack that only contained my laptop and a photo of my women’s Afghanistan team, it was heart-breaking as I couldn’t say goodbye to my friends, and family.”
Khalida moved to several refugee centres in India, and Pakistan before moving to Norway and then to Denmark where today she obtained refugee status and continues her campaigning through her movement Girl Power.
Her organisation identifies women from all backgrounds who are passionate and keen to give back to the community using sport as a tool.
Girl Power has grown significantly during the years and is working in several countries such as Greece, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
In 2021, when the Taliban regime fell in Afghanistan, Khalida managed to get the national team out of the country and move to Australia where they can continue their career there.
Khalida was in Malta a few weeks ago as a guest of the Football Social Responsibility Department, within the Malta FA, as a special guest for the PASS Final Conference. She also visited the Ballun Crossbars project at the Safi Detention Centre where she had the opportunity of sharing her story.
“I met Peter Busuttil, the director of the MFA’s Football and Social Responsibility Department, during a congress and he invited me over,” she said.
“I must say that it’s great that the Malta Football Association works so much in the field of Social Responsibility and they are an example to other federations in this field. I visited the Ħal Safi Detention Centre where I shared my story in the hope of inspiring them not to give up in life but inject hope for a better future.
“Unfortunately, refugees are not seen in the best way in many countries but I believe that they can give a lot back to the society that hosts them.
“Refugees deserve an opportunity and countries should invest in them too as they have nothing less than normal citizens.”
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