Real Life

The Afghanistan Women’s Football Team aren’t allowed to represent their country

This July, when soccer fans cheer their national teams in Paris, the Afghanistan Women’s Football Team will be missing.

On the morning of August 15, 2021, Fatima Yousufi was lacing up her runners, getting ready for soccer training, when one of her teammates came banging on her door. “She was yelling, ‘Have you heard what’s happened? The Taliban has arrived’,” Fatima recalls. 

The 18-year-old instantly knew what she had to do. She dug a hole in the front yard of her family’s Kabul home and buried her soccer uniform, trophies and any trace of her involvement with the Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team. 

“We had to hide our identity, hide anything that was related to the club or had our names on it. We were advised to burn our uniforms, but I couldn’t bring myself to burn them, so I buried them. I felt that if I burned them, I was burning my memories.” 

That morning, the world watched in horror as Taliban soldiers swept into Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, mercilessly shooting anyone in their path. 

For two decades, US Forces and their allies, including Australia, had controlled the province while attempting to build a functioning and democratic nation in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US in 2001. But when they announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban seized control of the troubled nation once again, determined to return it to their oppressive and ruthless rule, and the Afghan Women’s National Football Team was one of their first targets. 

Afghanistan Women's National Football Team

“They’d have stoned us to death or hung us. We knew the stories of the things they did, especially to women,” says Fatima. “They hung athletes in the football stadium in front of crowds of people, they forced men and women to kneel in the goal square and they were executed. All of those images were in my head.” 

Six days later, with nothing but the clothes on her back and a precious visa to Australia in her grasp, Fatima and her teammates hurried aboard a military plane and were airlifted to safety and a new home in Australia

Now they have re-formed their beloved Afghan Women’s Football Team, sharing their stories through the game they love and dreaming of playing on the world stage again to highlight the plight of women and girls under Taliban rule. 

“Football has changed my life and given me freedom. It has made me stronger, independent, powerful and given me a voice,” Fatima says.

Most mornings, as the sun was rising over the Hindu Kush mountains on the outskirts of Kabul, Fatima would tuck her long, dark hair up tight under a men’s cap and hoodie, hide her soccer uniform beneath layers of long, baggy clothes and head off to football training, hoping that as she made her way through the crowded streets, no one would recognise she was a girl. 

Fatima Yousufi and Mursal Sadat from the Afghanistan Women's National Football Team

As captain of the Afghan Women’s National Football Team, Fatima was breaking new ground for young women in Afghanistan, which was still struggling to shake its deep history of oppression of women. Although women were now allowed to go to school and work, they were only allowed to play sport at school and violence against those who rebelled was common. 

“It wasn’t safe for any girl to be walking alone on the street, let alone one who was going to play soccer. I was taking a risk and I knew it, but I left home early in the morning hoping there was less chance of being seen, and because I’m quite tall, I could get away with looking like a boy,” she says. 

The Afghanistan Women’s National Football Team was a groundbreaking force for change when it was founded by the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee in 2007. Players were drawn from selected girls’ schools in Kabul. The idea was to improve women’s football, but it was also about improving the quality of Afghan women’s lives. 

Like Fatima, Mursal Sadat was hand-chosen for the team after a teacher identified her talents in the playground. 

“I was initially chosen for the national running team, but my friends were playing soccer and I wanted to join them,” she says. “However, my father said no. Back then it was okay for girls to go to school – people had become more knowledgeable and accepted girls getting an education – but it was different for sport. Women playing sport wasn’t accepted. 

Afghanistan Women's National Football Team

“My ethnicity is Shia Sadat and my father said, as a descendant of the prophet, it was not good for me religiously to play soccer. So, I approached the religious leaders who gave me permission to play, as long as I wore my hijab. 

“We regularly saw stories on the news about the Taliban cutting a woman’s ear off or her nose, or women being killed, so for me, being able to play soccer was about advocacy and being a voice for those women.” 

After two decades of fighting, a peace agreement was signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban for the withdrawal of all NATO forces in Afghanistan in February 2020. The last Australian troops left in June 2021 and when the Biden administration took office, they agreed to pull out all US troops by September that year, with a view that the Afghanistan National Security Forces would be able to withstand the Taliban insurgency. However, the Taliban used the allied retreat to overrun local forces, and on August 15, they took Kabul. Chaotic scenes ensued as thousands fled to the airport seeking escape. 

“We knew we were in great danger,” Fatima says. 

Khalida Popal, the team’s former captain who had fled to Denmark in 2011 following threats to her life, hit the diplomatic phones to help secure the girls’ safety. With the help of former Socceroos captain Craig Foster, former Matildas captain Moya Dodd, and human rights lawyer Alison Battisson, the players were granted visas to Australia, but first they had to make it through the Taliban-held city to the airport, where thousands had gathered, desperate to escape. 

“My teammates called and said, ‘We’ve got visas for Australia, we must go now’,” Mursal remembers. “We didn’t have time to say goodbye or pack any things. I had my documents and my graduation certificate and the clothes I was wearing. My mum, dad and younger sister came with me in the hope we might be able to take them too, but we couldn’t. 

“When we got to the airport, we had to wade through a canal filled with sewage and rubbish to get to the soliders who were going to help. We were filthy, smelly. It was horrible. 

“I got separated from my parents and the last thing I remember was my dad crying. He said, ‘just stay safe’.” 

After the girls were finally inside the gates, they were able to call their families to let them know they had made it. They camped at the airport for three nights before boarding a military plane for Australia

Mursal’s mum risked her life to bring food and fresh clothes to her daughter. “She brought me an abaya [dress] and I still have it. I borrowed some pants from a friend. That’s all I came to Australia with.” 

The women were among 50 female athletes, officials and some family members who were evacuated to Australia after receiving emergency visas. They arrived during COVID-19 lockdowns, greeted by empty airports and a strict 15-day quarantine. Even so, the feeling of freedom was unforgettable. 

“I was so unfamiliar with Australia,” Mursal laughs. “I remember seeing an advertisement on television in Afghanistan for Australia and thinking, ‘who wants to go there?’… But here I am, and Australia is my home.” 

Fatima says she still pinches herself that she is here and playing soccer. “The only things I knew of Australia were Finding Nemo and the Opera House,” she laughs. “My imagination went wild, but from the moment I arrived, I felt at home. For some refugees, it’s not the same feeling – they can feel quite displaced and I understand that – but for me, the love for Australia was instant, and I’m so grateful. I feel like I’ve been saved.” 

Fatima and Mursal’s safety came at a high price. The Taliban targeted Fatima’s family – they searched her home and her father was beaten. But she was reunited with her parents and younger sister last November and they now all call Australia home, too. 

Mursal’s family remain in exile in Iran and Pakistan. Her brother, who was a soldier in the Afghanistan Forces, was kidnapped, beaten and held for 13 days before he escaped, and her younger sister married quickly, aged 16, to avoid being forced to marry a Taliban soldier. 

“She was very young and has a child now. I still have feelings of guilt that my family was in danger because of me,” Mursal says. “Maybe if I wasn’t a soccer player or played for the national team, my family wouldn’t have to be separated around the world. I dream that one day we can all sit around a table and have dinner together again.” 

After the team’s arrival in Australia, their sport provided a crucial network of friendship, support and family. 

They have now played two seasons with the Victorian State League, the team sponsored by Victoria University and A-League club Melbourne Victory, which provides coaching, uniforms and transport. But their dream is to officially play for their country again one day, and they are lobbying FIFA to allow them to represent Afghanistan on the international stage. 

“For me, after witnessing the bomb blasts and losing my relative in the army fighting for Afghanistan’s freedom, I want to represent my country and tell the world that Afghanistan needs their help,” Fatima says. 

“It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, we just want to fly our flag as high as possible to represent the women back home who are discriminated against and suffering.”

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