Her words express a deep despair. Amira (name changed): “I wish I didn’t exist.” I did nothing wrong. The only crime I committed was playing sports.” Before the Taliban took power in Kabul in August 2021, Amira was one of the best judo fighters in the country. A few weeks ago, the Taliban searched her home for documents proving that the young woman was a member of the Afghan national team. “Fortunately she managed to escape,” Fariba Rezaei told DW. “I hid all day in a local cemetery, praying that the Taliban would not find her there.” “Had these documents been found in her home, she would have appeared before a Sharia court. This would have meant that she would have been given 100 lashes or even publicly executed.”
Taliban threatening messages
Rezaei was once a successful judoka in Afghanistan. She and track and field runner Rubina Muqeem Yar became the first woman ever to represent Afghanistan at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “It was a sporting revolution,” Rezaei recalls. In 2011 she fled from Afghanistan to Canada. There, the 36-year-old founded the relief organization Women Leaders of Tomorrow (WLT), which enables women who have fled Afghanistan to obtain a university education. Through its GOAL (Girls of Afghanistan Lead) sports program, the organization also supports Afghan women in martial arts such as judo and taekwondo. Rezaei is still in contact with about 130 Afghan female athletes who – unlike the country’s international players – were not so lucky to leave the country after the Taliban seized power.
Those left behind continue to hide in their homes, Rezaei says, “kind of waiting for the Taliban to knock on the door and arrest them.” “The Taliban sent them threatening letters. They were intimidated. They can’t go out, they can’t identify themselves.”
Amira (not her real name) hid from the Taliban in a cemetery
Jodoka Amira describes the athletes’ tragic situation like this: “We don’t need a women’s prison in Afghanistan. Our homes have become our prisons.” According to Mina (not her real name), Afghanistan, another judoka who stayed there, “has become a fatherless country where violent children have the power to do whatever they want with women and girls.”
Volleyball player brutally beaten
The Taliban has not officially banned women’s sports by law—perhaps due to tactical calculations. You seem to have learned from the past. During the first Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) excluded Afghanistan from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, in part because Islamist extremists discriminated against mathematics. Nothing has changed in the Taliban’s position, says Rezaei: “According to their interpretation of Sharia, women’s sports are considered a sin. They believe that sexual signals are sent to men because a woman’s body and physical activity are visible. Women are not. They are allowed to train in the gym.”
Two students in the judo team training room
An atmosphere of intimidation and fear prevails in Afghanistan. A player from the Afghan national volleyball team was recently arrested, according to Rezaei: “The Taliban brutally beat her. She had horrific bruises all over her body. The Taliban let her live because they wanted to show other athletes what happened to them when they played sports.”
Global focus on Ukraine
Rezaei and her staff at WLT are still trying to get the threatened Afghan athletes out of the country and thus to safety. But even if that works, the problem remains as to where the refugees can stay permanently. Rezaei complains that the Canadian government’s refugee policy focuses on Afghan local Canadian military personnel and their families, while leaving out mathematics. “Even in Europe, it is very difficult to get visas for them.” The Ukraine war makes things even more difficult. “All the world’s attention is focused on the Ukrainian refugees. The world is forgetting Afghanistan.”
The Afghan sports pioneer is disappointed by the big sports organizations. Rezaei believes that the path of “silent diplomacy” with the Taliban, promoted by organizations such as the International Olympic Committee, is a wrong one. “If they legislate for them, the Taliban will triumph. This will set a historical precedent: the victories of evil. But we want the principles of sport, education and human rights to triumph over armed men.”
Stress can have an effect
After the Taliban took power eight months ago, only the International Cricket Federation threatened the ICC to exclude Afghanistan due to its stance on women’s sports. But the International Criminal Court has recently backed down. Now the union appears to be playing for time: they will continue to support the Afghan men’s team in international cricket and at the same time monitor the country’s sports management, including the development of women’s sports. Board meeting in Dubai in early April.
Fariba Rezaei appeals to sports federations to pressure the Taliban
Fariba Rezaei does not understand the hesitant behavior of sports associations. The Afghan exile demands a Canadian passport “now is the perfect time to apply pressure: without girls’ education and without women’s sports there is no legitimacy”. International pressure could have an effect on the radical rulers in Afghanistan. “Because the Taliban are as married to their ideology, they are sensitive to opinions about them. They are very savage, they are evil. But they are not stupid either. They realize that the world is watching them, especially the people on social media.”
the last lamp
Surrender is not an option for the first woman to represent Afghanistan at the Olympics – even if she often receives threats from her home country. “I’m used to it,” says the Women’s Leaders of Tomorrow Foundation. She continues to fight because she feels obligated to her fellow countrymen who play the sport.
“Whenever they call me or send me a message from Afghanistan, they cry and have no consolation. And their will dies in the face of life,” says Fariba Rezai. “When an athlete loses her motivation, it is like taking a child from her mother away from her. The work we are doing that I am asking the international community to do is not only to save the lives of female athletes in Afghanistan, but also to keep their hope alive. Hope is the last lamp that It stayed on. We must not allow this light to go out.”