Afghan female athletes talk about the pain of being banned from the sports they love

Noura’s determination to play sports was such that she defied her family’s opposition for years. The beatings of her mother and the taunts of her neighbors never stopped her from playing the sport she loved.

But the 20-year-old Afghan woman could not defy the Taliban rulers of her country.

They didn’t just ban all sports for women and girls, they actively intimidated and harassed those who once played, often scaring them away from practicing in private, Noura and other women said.

Noura was left broken.

“I’m not the same person anymore,” she said.

Ever since the Taliban came, I feel like I’m dead.

A number of girls and women who once played various sports said that the Taliban intimidated them with visits and phone calls warning them not to play their sports.

The women and girls spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of facing further threats.

An Afghan volleyball player poses for a photo in a burka.
Numerous women posed for portraits in the gear of the sports they loved.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

They posed for an AP photographer for portraits in gear for the sports they loved.

They hid their identity with burkas, all-over robes and hoods that completely cover the face, leaving only a mesh to see through.

Normally they did not wear a burqa, but they say that sometimes they wear a burqa when they go out and want to remain anonymous and avoid harassment.

An Afghan woman poses for a photo on her bicycle wearing a burqa in Kabul.
The Taliban require women to cover their hair and face in public.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

Increased restrictions for women

The sports ban is part of the Taliban’s escalating campaign of restrictions that have made life impossible for girls and women.

Since taking over Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have banned girls from attending middle and high school.

Last month they also ordered that all women be expelled from the university.

The Taliban require women to cover their hair and face in public and forbid them from going to parks or gyms.

They have severely restricted women’s ability to work outside the home and recently banned NGOs from employing women – a move that could cripple a vital aid flow.

An Afghan woman poses with a basketball and wears a green burqa.
Even before the Taliban, women’s sports were opposed by many in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

Even before the Taliban, many in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society opposed women’s sports, seeing them as a violation of women’s modesty and their role in society.

However, the previous government with international support had programs to encourage women’s sports and school clubs, leagues and national teams for women in many sports.

The 20-year-old mixed martial artist recalled competing in a local women’s tournament in a sports hall in Kabul in August 2021.

The news spread to the audience and participants that the Taliban were advancing on the outskirts of the city. All the women and girls ran away from the hall. It was the last competition in which the young athlete competed.

An Afghan mixed martial artist poses for a photo wearing a burqa with her trophies.
An Afghan mixed martial artist poses for a photo with her trophies.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

A few months later, she said she tried to give private lessons to the girls, but Taliban fighters stormed the gym where they were working out and arrested them all.

In detention, the girls were humiliated and made fun of, she said. After mediation by their elders, they were released after promising not to play sports again.

He still practices at home and sometimes teaches his close friends.

“My life has become very difficult, but I am a fighter, so I will continue to live and fight,” she said.

An Afghan woman in a burqa poses for a photo with her cricket bat.
An Afghan woman poses for a photo with her cricket bat in Kabul.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

Mushwanay, a spokesman for the Taliban Sports Organization and the National Olympic Committee, said authorities were looking for a way to restart women’s sports by building separate sports grounds.

But he did not give a time frame and said that funding is needed.

Taliban authorities have repeatedly made similar promises to allow seventh-grade girls to return to school, but have yet to do so.

A lifetime of resistance

Afghanistan's women's soccer team poses for a photo wearing burkas and holding soccer balls.
Some still secretly practice their sport.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

Noura has faced resistance throughout her life trying to play sports.

Raised in a poor neighborhood of Kabul by parents who emigrated from the province, Noura started playing soccer with local boys on the street.

When she was nine years old, she was spotted by a coach and at his encouragement, she joined the women’s youth team.

She hid it from everyone except her father, but her own talent was revealed by the screen. At the age of 13, she was declared the best soccer player in her age group, and her photo and name were published on television.

All over the world, when a girl becomes famous and her picture is shown on television, it is a good day for her and she is at the peak of happiness, she said.

– For me, that day was very bitter and the beginning of worse days.

Afghan girls practicing wushu hold their equipment while wearing burkas.
Afghan girls practicing wushu, a Chinese martial art, pose for a photo in Kabul.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

Her angry mother beat her, shouting that she was not allowed to play football. She continued to play in secret, but was exposed again when her team won the national championship and her photo was in the news. Her mother beat her again.

Still, she snuck off to the award. She burst into tears on stage as the audience cheered.

“Only I knew that I was crying because of the loneliness and the difficult life I had,” she said.

When she found out, her mother set her soccer uniform and shoes on fire.

‘The world has become dark for me’

Afghan women practicing Muay Tha pose for a photo wearing burkas and boxing gloves.
Noura gave up football, but then turned to boxing.(AP: Ebrahim Noroozi)

Noura gave up football, but then turned to boxing. Her mother eventually relented, realizing she couldn’t stop her from playing sports, she said.

The day the Taliban entered Kabul, she said, her coach called her mother and told Noura to go to the airport to be taken out of the country.

Noura said that her mother did not give her the message because she did not want her to leave. When she found out about the message – too late to escape – Noura said she cut her wrists and had to be taken to hospital.

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