In response to recent events in Afghanistan, I want to take a quick detour from covering gymnastics to highlight the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team. I have long considered them a very special collection of women whose stories are amongst the most inspiring in all of sports considering how much they had to overcome.
Even before recent events there were three women involved in Afghan women’s soccer that I always wanted to talk about. If you were to ask me a list of a dozen or so inspiring athletes, all three of them would be on it. In light of what has occurred in Afghanistan in the past few weeks, I figured now would be a good time to tell their stories.
The origins of the Afghan women’s soccer team starts with a young girl by the name of Khalida Popal. She was nine years old when the Taliban began its takeover of the country in 1996. At the time Popal was young enough to have come of age in an era defined by the Taliban, but just old enough to understand what life was like for women prior to their rise to power.
Like ever single athlete featured in this article, Khalida Popal became a refugee. First her family fled to Pakistan, but eventually returned to Afghanistan following the American-led invasion after the country began to stabilize in 2004. The Taliban had been removed from power, but many of its views and hardline stances against women remained in society.
That wasn’t going to stop Khalida Popal who even from a young age seemed to realize that gender didn’t have to be a limiting factor preventing her from doing what she loved. And Khalida Popal loved soccer.
For women, gaining equal access in the sports world is often one of the hardest tasks to achieve. In many countries, women secured political rights quicker than they were able to secure equal opportunity on the playing field. It is incredibly difficult to build a sports infrastructure for women because it requires establishing a mentality that they deserve equal respect compared to their male counterparts, even while their male counterparts generate more revenue and perform better in physical fitness tests. That is on top of stigma from those who see women in sports as something that can’t coexist with motherhood due to the physical commitments required.
For a country that had the worst track record on women’s rights in the entire world, it could not be overstated just how much Khalida Popal was going to have to overcome. Khalida’s soccer career started after she invited her friends to play soccer matches with each other in secret. They choose locations where walls would obstruct those passing by from realizing what was occurring, and the girls made their best attempt to conduct soccer games without making any noise.
The games continued to grow as more and more girls joined the group. Their collective accomplishment of creating an unofficial girls sports league was met with accusations that they had all prostituted themselves by partaking in athletic activity. At times spectators gathered not to cheer them on as they played, but to throw stones at the players as they objected to the concept of girls in sports.
But others saw potential with this collection of young girls and eventually they achieved support in the most unusual fashion. The girls were granted access to a NATO base where its walls would protect them from harassment. But it came with some conditions. First, the players could only use the base three times per week. Secondly, the field within the base being used by the players was an active helicopter landing zone. The team had to halt practice whenever a helicopter needed to take off or land.
Despite all the limitations, three years later (2007) this collection of female soccer players achieved enough support that they were officially reformed as Afghanistan women’s national soccer team. But it would take another three years of further organization and development before the team could play its first international match in major level competition (2010).
In a symbolic act, the team played in Ghazi Stadium. The location that had once been used to stone women to death as a form of public execution had now become a field of female empowerment, with women taking the field as sportsfigures.
The brilliance of what Khalida Popal accomplished is that she built a viable sporting infrastructure in soccer. Historically, emerging women’s sports are usually individual sports, or team sports with small roster sizes such as basketball. The reason being, they are better suited to handle low participation rates and other logistical challenges.
Individual sports can have team members train on their own in different parts of the country. Team sports also require athletes to all be housed together and train side-by-side on a regular basis. In gymnastics, you could hold a viable competition with just 20 athletes such as the American Cup.
In soccer, that wouldn’t get you enough participants to host a traditional 11 vs. 11 soccer match. These reasons were major contributing factors as to why soccer didn’t make its Olympic debut until 1996. Far behind other sports such as, Swimming (1912), Diving (1912), Gymnastics (1928), Volleyball (1964), and Basketball (1976).
That is what Khalida Popal had to overcome, but her time as an athlete was short. In a sport where talented athletes first compete in major competition at around 15 years old, Khalida Popal had to wait until her 20th birthday because prior to then, Afghanistan had no opportunity for a female soccer player whatsoever. But two years later Popal left the athletic realm to switch her focus to managing Afghanistan’s soccer team as an administrator. In doing so, becoming the first woman in Afghanistan to serve an executive role within in its soccer program.
Khalida Popal’s status as Captain of Afghanistan’s inaugural women’s soccer team made her a high profile figure, which eventually led to death threats. The thing about getting death threats in Afghanistan, people tend follow through with them. Khalida Popal fled the country in 2016 and ended up in Denmark.
Despite finding herself in an entirely different continent, that didn’t stop Popal’s work. As a teenager Popal had lived as a refugee in Pakistan. As an adult, she returned to refugee camps scouting them for talented young girls who had an interest in soccer. Even while in self-exile, Khalida Popal was adding to the ranks of the program she had built.
By this point Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team had developed into two hubs. Its first hub included those who lived and trained in Afghanistan. While its second hub was based in Europe, populated by team members who made a living playing for a European club, or were refugees living outside of Afghanistan. Jordan, the country located just inland on the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea had the ideal geographical proximity to be the “middle ground” between the two hubs.
The most underrated attribute of high-level athletes is often their brains. Athletes are famed for their physical talent, but often times it is their intelligence that gets them ahead in life and is the foundation for all of their success. Khalida Popal was no exception to this trend.
When Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team reconvened in Jordan, it was there that Popal began to notice that something was seriously wrong with the team she had built. Against her own wishes, players from the Afghanistan hub were being escorted by male rather than female officials. It was the beginning of what can fairly be described as one of the most horrific sexual abuse scandals to ever overcome an elite-level sports team.
WARNING: Before I continue, I want to give readers a warning that the details of what they will read next are highly disturbing accounts involving sexual abuse. Readers can skip ahead to the next picture if they wish to avoid reading the specific allegations surrounding the team.
It was at the Jordan camp that Popal witnessed her players being verbally abused by male team officials, and then sexually harassed by them including unwanted touching. In some instances, sneaking into the players’ rooms at night. In a society plagued with rampant sexism, the men felt so protected that they engaged in this sort of derogatory behavior even when Popal was in the room.
Despite Afghanistan’s status as a male-dominated culture, Popal was still willing to confront them. First she attempted to educate the men and explain how their conduct was wrong. When that didn’t work she threatened to report them. Neither tactic worked, and Popal followed through on her threats to report.
When AFF which was the national governing body for Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team failed to properly respond, Khalida Popal took matters into her own hands. Even though a knee injury had ended her career, this was still Popal’s team and she was going to protect it.
Popal conducted what amounts to her own personal SafeSport investigation. Interviewing her teammates to learn the full extent of what was occurring inside Afghanistan’s soccer program.
Reluctance to come forward as a survivor of sexual assault in Afghanistan is in a completely different realm compared to doing so in a Western country. Afghanistan is a country where men accused of sexual assault often garner more sympathy than the women accusing them. For a woman to publically reveal she had been raped meant her marriage prospects would be destroyed and her social status reduced to that of an outcast. These are the consequences of a society that treats unmarried women with a previous sexual history as someone of no value.
It is a testament to how much trust these women had with Popal that they revealed to her their stories. But each team member who came forward did so as a Jane Doe. Even to this day not one member of the team has publically connected her name to her anonymous allegation. What Popal found was that sexual misconduct within Afghanistan’s soccer program was rampant. Many had been coerced, if not forced into performing sexual acts with mid-level team officials if they wanted to secure their roster spots on the national team.
But it was the allegations involving senior level officials that were the most disturbing, and they involved Keramuudin Karim who was the head of the AFF. He was to Afghanistan soccer what Steve Penny was to USA Gymnastics. There are a wide variety of reasons why a soccer player may find herself in Keramuudin Karim’s office. Sometimes it was as simple as her signature was needed on a document. Or perhaps, she needed to go to him to help her with something, a common request for a country plagued with so many problems.
But the danger of Keramuudin Karim’s office was that next to it he had a “rape room.” Complete with a hidden doorway, a lock on the inside that could only be opened with his personal fingerprint, and the room itself had been soundproofed. His alleged attacks were also incredibly violent with one player saying she woke up with “blood everywhere” and “the bed was covered in blood, blood was coming from my mouth, nose and vagina.” Another allegation stats he instructed a player to scream all she wanted, no one would be able to hear her.
For women who attempted to seek justice, or demonstrated any displeasure over what had occurred to them Keramuudin Karim had the tools to ensure their silence. He would frequently make public accusations of lesbianism against his victims. It was an easy allegation to make in a country where female soccer players were already seen as unladylike and engaging in an activity for women who choose to reject female gender roles.
But such a label wasn’t without consequence. It came at the serious risk of death in a country where anti-LGBT views are so extreme. In total, eight players were expelled from the team with Keramuudin Karim accusing them of being lesbians.
Other times Keramuudin Karim took a more direct approach. On one occasion he allegedly put a gun to the head of one of his victims and said “I can shoot you in the head and everywhere will be your brain. And I can do the same with your family. If you want your family to be alive you should keep quiet.”
Khalida Popal used her resources wisely and contacted Kelly Lindsey, the former NCAA player and coach who had signed on to coach the Afghanistan women’s team. It was Lindsey who then contacted the Western Press bringing public attention to the story, forcing an investigation by both FIFA and the Afghan government.
Keramuudin Karim went on the offensive and it is alleged he had three of his accusers intimidated after speaking with law enforcement officials. One of them was forced into a car after walking home from practice and confronted by Keramuudin Karim himself. Eventually, Keramuudin Karim would be banned for life by FIFA and the Afghan government would issue a warrant for his arrest. But in Afghanistan, justice has its limits.
The New York Times described Keramuudin Karim as a “warlord” and during his career he held numerous high level positions in the Afghan government. He was once a provincial governor and after that a senior level defense minister. Keramuudin Karim escaped to his home province and knowing his background, the Afghan government attempted a surprise raid in an attempt to detain him. It failed to materialize in his arrest after Afghan security forces found Keramuudin Karim surrounded by 200-armed militants loyal only to him.
Guns were pointed at each other, but Afghan government forces retreated after neither side fired a shot. Keramuudin Karim remains at large to this day, the only serious repercussions he ever faced is that he can no longer travel outside his immediate province without the protection of his loyal followers.
Typically, sports pale in comparison to the larger geopolitical issues of the day. But in the case of Afghan soccer, this particular fiasco highlighted a problem that was plaguing the country as a whole. Here you have a central government that was so weak, it couldn’t even arrest the president of its soccer federation. Its divisions between regional political power and national political power had undercut the effectiveness of the government in every way possible.
After the fall of Kabul a few years later, Khalida Popal maintained contact with the soccer players who were still located in Afghanistan. Still finding ways to protect her team, every from afar. Popal’s instructions were for them to delete their social media so they couldn’t be identified. Flee their homes as their neighbors knew who they were and could inform the Taliban that they had once been part of a soccer team. The team that Popal once publically declared existed to fight Taliban ideology.
Lastly, Popal instructed her athletes to burn all evidence of their status as soccer players, including their jerseys. Pieces of clothing that once symbolized how much they accomplished. Wearing them for the first time was the most emotional moment of their career, now they were being turned to ash.
Using her international connections, Popal and her supporters successfully evacuated 75 members of the women’s senior team and youth team. This includes players, officials, and family members.
Nearly every member of Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team have experienced life as a refugee. Either as children during the first era of Taliban rule from 1996-2001, or for a reason related to the American-led invasion of the country. Some had to leave the country as a direct result of death threats regarding their status as soccer players. For many, they have been a refugee multiple times being forced to flee, only to return to their homes thinking the country was on an upward trend, only to be forced to leave again as things took a turn for the worse.
They were often guided by highly intelligent parents who knew when it was time to flee, and when it is time to wait things out. When to play the system, and when to game it. By the time they joined the national team, they had already seen the world. In one example that closely mirrors the experiences of other players, she illegally crossed the border into Pakistan, and from there legally crossed into India. And then from India she requested political asylum to a Western country until she found one willing to take her.
Most young athletes use sports as a means to travel internationally for the first time. For the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team, the opposite is true, sports is their reason to return home.
If Khalida Popal was Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team’s first captain, Shabnam Mobarez would be its very last. Like many of her teammates, Shabnam Mobarez was a child refugee who had grown accustomed to life in the West where she could enjoy the freedoms of being a female athlete without having to suffer the limitations that exist in her home country.
Mobarez got her start playing soccer in the streets of Denmark alongside the boys of her neighborhood. The girl who could hold her own against the boys was eventually noticed by a Danish coach and elevated up the ranks of the national club system. At one point Shabnam Mobarez was given the opportunity to compete for the Danish national team.
Shabnam Mobarez could have lived the life of a normal soccer player, far removed from the problems of Afghanistan, and the daily struggles that being a member of its women’s national team entails. She could compete in a system where women weren’t only protected, but given every reasonable opportunity to succeed in the athletic realm and without limitations placed on them simply because of who they are.
But Shabnam Mobarez chose to take the more difficult path, and compete for the nation of her birth. To contribute her talents to building up a young and weak national program, and pave the way for the next generation of Afghan girls. As Shabnam Mobarez saw it, she wanted to bring something positive to the country. But most importantly, it was the soccer players themselves who would be her future teammates that inspired her. Mobarez wanted to “work harder for them.”
What makes Shabnam Mobarez so amazing is that not only did she choose Afghanistan over Denmark, she took it one step further. Shabnam Mobarez also had the option to compete for Afghanistan while living in Denmark, but she chose to spend some time living in Afghanistan. Her reason? Shabnam Mobarez did it in solidarity with her teammates and to understand the struggles of daily life as a female athlete in Afghanistan.
In Denmark, Mobarez could simply drive herself to practice. In Afghanistan that exact same behavior wasn’t as practical. Women going out by themselves and without a male escort represented self-dependence and made them targets amongst the more traditional elements of Afghan society. That was one example of the day-to-day struggles that had little to do with sports that Shabnam Mobarez subjected herself to. And then there were the hardships that were directly related to sports.
Shabnam Mobarez took a stand against her national governing body after the women’s soccer team members were forced into signing a contract. The contract placed significant financial burdens on players forcing them to participate in promotional events and competitions without pay, but also came with it an asinine requirement limiting which overseas clubs they could compete for.
While the financial ramifications of the contract forced on them were extreme, that particular aspect paled in comparison to what Shabnam Mobarez felt was the main sticking point with the contract that she felt was intolerable. It was a requirement that all women wear a hijab while playing.
As Shabnam Mobarez saw it, that was a deeply personal choice that was up to every player to decide for herself. Shabnam Mobarez has been known to compete both with and without a hijab. In a country where young girls are frequently discouraged from playing soccer because they are told it is incompatible with religion, Shabnam Mobarez’s public display of competing while wearing a hijab sends a powerful message. That it is possible to play soccer and respect religion in the process. For a country like Afghanistan where there are so many obstacles to overcome to get young girls involved in sports, Mobarez will do anything to be the most effective role model possible.
Shabnam Mobarez is on the record defending her right as well as the right of her teammates to wear a hijab, but also short-shorts. What makes Shabnam Mobarez one of my favorite athletes of all time is that she always puts her money where her mouth is when she speaks. At first, Mobarez appears to advocate for clothing stances that are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But as Mobarez sees it, the issue is not what she and her teammates wear, only that the players themselves are the ones making that decision.
It is a testament as to how much this soccer team overcame that they had to fight for clothing rights and reasonable pay. These two issues would be the most pressings issues at play for any other program. But for an Afghan program that had to deal with so much hardship elsewhere, including violence, death threats, and sexual assault, these issues seemed to fall below the radar in order of importance.
Which is why Shabnam Mobarez highlighting these issues as well was such an important stance. Between her advocacy for the rights of her and her teammates, playing for a national team as well as a European club, Shabnam Mobarez has made one additional commitment. She has been known to volunteer her time at refugee camps teaching and exposing young girls to soccer.
For a soccer program that had its first captain chased out of the country due to death threats, what type of person is willing to fill that role? An endless revolving door of players like Shabnam Mobarez is your answer. But what if Shabnam Mobarez had chosen a different path?
This brings me to yet another soccer player who I feel is important to highlight, Nadia Nadim. What makes Nadim different is that she has never played for Afghanistan’s soccer program, but her story is just as important. Nadia Nadim took the exact opposite career path of Shabnam Mobarez.
When she was 11 years old Nadia Nadim was expelled from school after the Taliban took power. Shortly after that her father who was a high ranking general in the Afghan Army failed to return home after a normal work day. Four months later the family learned he had been executed by the Taliban. In a story that has similarities with so many other children who later went on to become soccer players for the Afghan National Team, Nadia Nadim’s mother smuggled the family out of the country using falsified passports. Their journey took them through Pakistan, Italy, with an intended final destination of England, but the family ended up in a refugee camp in Denmark instead.
At 12 years old Nadim found herself in a foreign country she had no prior cultural or linguistic exposure to. She learned how to speak both Danish and English, effectively becoming trilingual. Perhaps that was an early indication of her academic potential. Currently, Nadim is studying to become a surgeon. But as you can tell where this story is going, Nadia also happened to be a very good soccer player.
Whereas Shabnam Mobarez rejected the opportunity to play for the Danish National program, Nadia Nadim opted to compete for Denmark. Neither Mobarez nor Nadim made the wrong decision. They simply took opposite paths to promote the status of women in Afghanistan. But both paths were equally important to follow.
Shabnam Mobarez chose to be a builder, to make the best of a bad decision, to take the bumpy road knowing that her actions would help a struggling program in need. As Shabnam Mobarez saw it, how can Afghanistan have a future if no one was willing to be the one to lay its foundation? To quote Mobarez herself, “But if that means I have to sacrifice my dreams for future generations to have better opportunities then it’s okay with me.”
Nadia Nadim sought to prove what Afghanistan could have if their players were given the proper tools to succeed. Nadim lived the dream that had been denied to so many Afghan girls and women. She went on to appear for the Danish program 98 times, and recorded over 200 goals between her club and national team appearances.
Nadia Nadim rose so high that she competed as teammates with Christie Rampone at a New Jersey club. The American player even gymnastics fans will recognize as the famed former captain of Team USA who appeared in the Olympics 4x, the FIFA World Cup 5x, and has four Olympic medals (3 gold and 1 silver). Nadia became a legend for Afghanistan and the pride of its soccer program without ever having formally competed for the country.
Nadia Nadim proved in Afghanistan the talent is there, but what stops it is the violence of war, discrimination of women, and the dismal participation rates amongst girls who have been so frequently been told not to dream. Nadia Nadim gave Afghanistan an insight as to what may be possible in the future. But as recent news events demonstrate, all of that hope has been dashed as the Taliban has returned to power.