Ebrahim Noroozi, AP
Afghan women and girls who once played a variety of sports say they have faced intimidation from the Taliban, including visits and phone calls warning them not to take part.
Since they took power in August 2021, the Taliban have banned sports for women and girls, part of a series of measures that have virtually shut down life for women in Afghanistan.
One woman said Taliban fighters came to a gym where she was giving private lessons to women in mixed martial arts and detained all of them.
Another female athlete said she had received threatening phone calls.
Since their takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have also barred girls from attending middle and high school. Last month, they ordered all women to be thrown out of universities as well.
The Taliban require women to cover their hair and faces in public and prohibit them from going to parks or gyms.
They have severely limited women’s ability to work outside the home and most recently forbade non-governmental organisations from employing women, a step that could cripple the vital flow of aid.
Even before the Taliban returned, women’s sports were opposed by many in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society, seen as a violation of women’s modesty and of their role in life.
However, the previous, internationally-backed government initiated programmes encouraging women’s sports and school clubs, as well as leagues and national teams for women in many sports.
Sarina, a 20-year-old mixed martial artist, recalled how in August 2021, she was competing in a local women’s tournament at a Kabul sports hall.
Word spread through the audience and participants that the advancing Taliban were on the city’s outskirts. All the women and girls fled the hall. It was the last competition Sarina ever played in.
Months later, she said she tried to give private lessons for girls. But Taliban fighters raided the gym where they were practicing and arrested all of them.
In detention, the girls were humiliated and mocked, Sarina said. After mediation by elders, they were released after promising not to practice sports any more.
She still practices at home and sometimes teaches her close friends.
“Life has become very difficult for me, but I am a fighter, so I will continue to live and fight,” she said.
Mushwanay, a spokesman of the Taliban’s Sports Organisation and National Olympic Committee, said authorities are looking for a way to restart sports for women by building separate sport venues.
But he gave no timeframe, and said extra funds were needed. Taliban authorities have repeatedly made similar promises to allow girls from the age of around 12 and upwards to return to school, but have still not done so.
Another sportswoman, 20-year-old Noura, revealed she had faced resistance her whole life as she tried to play sports.
Raised in a poor Kabul district by parents who migrated from the provinces, Noura started out playing football alongside local boys in the street. When she was nine, a coach spotted her and, at his encouragement, she joined a girls’ youth team.
She kept this a secret from everyone but her father, but her cover was blown by her own talent. At 13, she was named the best girl player in her age group, and her photo and name were broadcast on television.
Noura said: “All over the world, when a girl becomes famous and her picture is shown on TV, it’s a good day for her and she’s at the peak of happiness.
“For me, that day was very bitter and the beginning of worse days.”
Furious, her mother beat her, shouting that she was not allowed to play football. She kept playing in secret but was exposed again when her team won a national championship, and her photo was in the news. Again, her mother beat her.
Still, she sneaked off to the awards ceremony. She broke down in tears on stage as the audience cheered. “Only I knew I was crying because of loneliness and the hard life I had,” she said.
When she found out, her mother set fire to her football kit.
Noura gave up football, but then turned to boxing. Her mother eventually relented, realising she could not keep her daughter away from sport, she said.
The day the Taliban entered Kabul, she said, her coach called her mother and said Noura should go to the airport to be taken out of the country.
Noura said her mother did not deliver the message because she did not want her to leave. When she learned of the message – too late to escape – Noura said she harmed herself, and had to be taken to hospital.
“The world had become dark for me,” she said.
Three months later, someone who identified himself as a member of the Taliban called the family and threatened her. “They were saying, why did you play sports? Sports are forbidden,” Noura recalled.
Terrified, she left Kabul, disguising herself in her burqa to travel to her family’s hometown. Eventually, she returned, but remains in fear.
“Even if my life was difficult, I used to have confidence in myself and knew that, with effort, I could do what I wanted,” she said.
“Now I don’t have much hope any more.”