Afghan female athletes escape chaos, take steps toward new life

Afghan female athletes escape chaos, take steps toward new life

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Faridah loves basketball. 

She played whenever she could growing up, even though girls being involved in sports is frowned upon in Afghanistan, which was true even during the years when the Taliban had been ousted from power.

She got really good, good enough to represent her nation internationally. 

She remembers wearing the uniform of the Afghan national team, the pride she felt, the sense of wonder that barely dimmed through her 10 years as a tough, rebounding forward. She doesn’t know if there is much basketball in her future, but she hopes there is.

The game is part of her life, but today there was a bigger priority: Leaving her country, to begin a new life.

“In Afghanistan, we have lots of challenges for women, in all sports, not just basketball, because the people said the women couldn’t play,” Faridah told FOX News foreign correspondent Trey Yingst. “Now, we just want to go to Qatar.”

On Wednesday, Faridah and her teammates on the Afghanistan women’s basketball team, plus members of the Afghan men’s and women’s soccer programs and other athletes, were on an evacuation flight from Kabul to Doha, the Qatari capital. Their extraction was facilitated by the Qatar government, which has a diplomatic relationship with the Taliban, and soccer governing body FIFA. Yingst was on the journey with the athletes.

It wasn’t a terrifying dash to the airport under raging gunfire — that’s the Hollywood version — yet the fear experienced by female athletes since the Taliban retook control is both real and justified. As the evacuees boarded their flight, there were armed Qatari security forces around the plane and Taliban fighters on the runway.

When asked whether there would be difficulties for Afghan athletes leaving the country to compete in various tournaments and events, a Taliban spokesman said there would be no limitations “for the boys … but maybe for the ladies.” It was an ominous message, indicative of a new reality.

“Most of the athletes we met in Kabul were extremely relieved to be leaving the Taliban-controlled country,” Yingst told me. “Others were very nervous about their identities being shared due to security concerns. Some of the athletes with higher profiles are at greater risk. Their movements are more closely followed. 

“The future of women’s sports under the Taliban remains unclear. At best, women will be allowed to compete domestically but have limited access traveling abroad. At worst, women won’t be allowed to participate in sports.”

Family of the players of the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team arrive for a training session in Portugal. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Yingst, since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan after two decades of American control, women are no longer considered equal there. Women’s sports were not highly developed or well-organized before. Now? No one knows, though female athletes were recently urged to destroy any evidence that they had played competitively. 

One instance includes former women’s national team soccer captain Khalida Popal asking current players to remove all social media posts and “burn down or get rid of your team uniform.”

The Taliban says it has changed. Reports of how things have played out over the past months suggest something different.

As a result, most of the athletes on the Qatar-bound flight did not wish to speak for fear of reprisals, either personally or to their loved ones still in Afghanistan. Faridah talked, but asked for her last name to be removed as a safety precaution.

“Today we are happy that [after] a long time, we could go from our country,” Faridah said. “But I’m upset that I want to leave.”

Some of the evacuees will remain in Qatar while their visa applications to various destinations are pending. For now, they are mostly thankful to be free and to have the chance at a new life.

There are already some success stories to offer them hope. 

In the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, a group of girls soccer players who were part of the Afghanistan Under-15 and Under-17 programs have been relocated and are assimilating into their new lives.

Farkhunda Muhtaj, whose family moved to Canada when she was 2, later became captain of the Afghanistan women’s soccer team. Now 23, she was recently working as a teacher and an assistant coach at York University in Toronto. However, after playing a significant role in helping secure the release of the youth soccer players, she was asked to remain in Portugal to help guide the girls through their year in their new surroundings.

Players from the Afghanistan women’s national soccer program attend a training session at Odivelas, on the outskirts of Lisbon, last month. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

She told me this week about the challenges that had to be surmounted even in past years. Before the Taliban returned to power, women’s games in Afghanistan had to be played behind closed doors. National team training camps would take place overseas. The Afghan women never played a competitive game on home soil, instead participating in foreign tournaments or FIFA friendly matches.

She remembers the squad being a melting pot of internationally-based players, women whose parents were from Afghanistan but now lived in Europe, or Canada, or the United States. Mixed in with the group would be a collection of players living in Afghanistan who were still learning what advanced-level soccer was all about.

“There was a huge difference in talent,” Muhtaj said. “But it was an incredible bonding and human experience. The players coming from overseas got to learn about what their lives were like, and we were able to help them improve their skills. We shared this common experience, and I thought how easily their lives could have been mine.”

Farkhunda Muhtaj, 23, who has lived and coached in Canada, will work with the young players in Lisbon to help their transition. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

The Afghan-based women would talk about the difficulty in receiving adequate education and how, in many cases, even their own parents were not supportive of them representing the country in sports. 

Muhtaj doesn’t know what comes next. For international soccer teams to be allowed to compete, the national federation must be run from within the country, and the Taliban has already put a new soccer regime into place with clear instructions that women’s soccer is not to be supported.

Even so, every time she receives word that more athletes have gotten out of the country, her heart lifts.

The departure from Kabul on Wednesday was a happy tale amid a time of great difficulty. Sports have a role in Afghanistan’s evolving story, but it is a small part of a much bigger process, a humanitarian shift that is barely conceivable for most who grew up in the West.

Many of the Afghan players live and train overseas due to conditions for female athletes in their home country. (Photo by PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP via Getty Images)

While Qatari security and Taliban fighters were present when the evacuation flight took off, the tension in Kabul is based away from the airport. Hours earlier, a bomb blast had hit just a few miles away, likely instigated by the ISIS-K terror group, according to Yingst.

Yingst spent nearly three weeks in Afghanistan over the fall after the Taliban took control. After witnessing so much fear and suffering in his reporting, he said it was nice to cover some good news. 

The next time Faridah, and many others, get to compete, it will be amid a new life of freedom.

“Watching these athletes get to safety was really refreshing,” he told me, via text message, while still midair on the evacuating flight. “They are athletes, but first they are humans.”

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

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