N.With teams, fans and sponsors leaving Qatar, FIFA is eyeing the Women’s World Cup next July in Australia. World soccer governing bodies want a smoother event where people can watch the match and “allow them to have moments where they don’t have to think about this” Players protest in Doha.
Perhaps that is why FIFA has so far ignored pleas to have players formally recognized by the Afghan women’s national team. She lives as a refugee after a harrowing flight from her homeland for fear of being arrested or killed.
They were right to be afraid. The Taliban quickly banned women and girls from playing the sport, and weeks after they came to power, they reportedly beheaded members of the national volleyball team. Last month they banned women from all gyms and parks.
The Taliban’s war on women goes beyond sports and recreation. They have banned adolescent girls from attending school for more than a year, and in less than two weeks they have kicked women out of every college in the country. A few days later they decreed that women would not be allowed to work for local and international humanitarian organizations.
As the Taliban purge women from public view, the players of Afghanistan’s women’s football team remain symbols of the country’s courage and resistance. Most of the team now live in Australia and are training for an uncertain future. After losing their homes, livelihoods and many friends and relatives, the women are determined to bring the team together.
The trauma of fleeing Afghanistan and the struggles of adjusting to an unfamiliar country, learning a new language and finding work weigh heavily on them. Players are experiencing recurring nightmares, sleep disturbances, and depression. But on the pitch they smile, shout and celebrate every goal with enthusiasm.
Despite missing out on the qualifying rounds for next year’s World Cup, the team hopes to continue to develop their skills and one day play with the best team in the world again. Above all, they want to give hope to the women and girls living under Afghanistan’s oppressive patriarchal regime.
However, without formal approval from FIFA, a team cannot represent its country, compete in professional matches, or receive the necessary funding to support its players and staff. Despite submitting multiple reports to FIFA detailing violations of the organization’s code of ethics and citing rules that should allow women to play outside the country, they have received no response. Hmm.
Over the past year, human rights activists have called on world leaders to refuse to negotiate with the Taliban or approve governments until they end discrimination against women and get girls back to school. Many countries have agreed to these terms. Aid groups are working to help starving families in Afghanistan in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. People around the world have evacuated endangered Afghans and opened their homes to refugees.
Now FIFA must use its power to send a message to the Taliban as well. Women should be in the workplace, in the classroom, on the soccer field. Afghan women’s footballers love their sport and their country. They know what it means for Afghan girls and women living under Taliban oppression to see them wearing kits that represent their homes. They understand the diplomatic power of sports. Organizations like FIFA can check discrimination against women and defend equality for female athletes.
The FIFA Code of Ethics prohibits gender discrimination. The Covenant declares that organizations must “seek to promote the protection” of human rights. If FIFA wants to set its record straight, FIFA can start by recognizing the Afghan women’s national team.
Kalida Popal is the founder and former coach of the Afghan women’s national football team. Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.