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Odense (Denmark): Former Afghan judoka, Friba Rezayee, 36, and the first female Olympian from Afghanistan, is constantly in touch with women athletes who are still hiding in Afghanistan. Many have changed their identity because they fear being beaten up, stoned, or shot to death by the Taliban regime.
“Many still fear that dreaded knock on the door and it is awful what they have gone through. And for what? Being punished for playing sports,” said Rezayee.
Ever since Afghan women, including the country’s women’s cricket team, were banned from playing sport under the new Taliban government in August last year, Rezayee, who now lives in Canada, has been helping female athletes leave the country.
“There are still 130 athletes that need to be evacuated. If they are found by the Taliban, it means 100 lashes or even death,” Rezayee added.
She is the executive director of the Vancouver-based non-profit organisation, Women Leaders of Tomorrow, which is focused on education and sports in Afghanistan.
Khalida Popal, former captain of Afghanistan women’s football team, has been mobilising people and the sporting community to give a voice to the women of her country.
“I see the dreams of our women fading away. This is a human rights issue and while I don’t want to be pessimistic, I hope the youngsters and sports bodies will step up and give back what is due to the women,” Popal said.
Both Rezayee and Popal were participants at ‘Play the Game’ conference in Odense, Denmark. The event discussed how sports bodies across the world have failed woman athletes in Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban regime.
“Even though the [Taliban] regime almost immediately violated the Olympic charter by banning women from sports activities, the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee (NOC) is still being funded by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) solidarity programme,” Rezayee said.
She added that an email earlier this year between the IOC and the NOC had confirmed the transfer of $56,000 from the IOC’s solidarity programme to the Taliban-controlled committee in Kabul. However, the money seemed to never reach the athletes in the country.
Rezayee believes that the global Olympic movement has no plans of excluding the Taliban-controlled NOC in Afghanistan.
“I am not surprised anymore. But I am disappointed and heartbroken. What I would like to see is for the IOC to reach out to Afghanistan’s women athletes and to not recognise and legitimise the Taliban regime,” she said.
Many sportswomen have been hiding in Afghanistan since the Taliban swept to power amid a precipitated US-led withdrawal of foreign forces, with some women reporting threats of violence from Taliban fighters if they are caught playing.
Despite its promise to respect women’s rights, the Taliban has dramatically rolled back many gains, including closing most girls’ secondary schools, banning women from most forms of employment, and preventing women’s sports.
The harsh restrictions have upended the lives of women, many of whom have grown increasingly anxious and distrustful. Sport is just one avenue of women participating in society that is now deemed impermissible by the country’s rulers.
“It’s the same case with FIFA. The National Football Federation in Afghanistan is getting the budget. The national football team for men is travelling the world and competes in international tournaments. For them, it’s just a normal day at the office. But there is no single statement from the Federation or FIFA on how Afghan women can play football,” Popal said.
“Most leaders in sports are only trying to secure their votes. But we will not let them forget us. We won’t give up.”
Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s football team, now lives in Denmark. She hailed her evacuation as an important victory.
Human rights lawyer and Olympian Nikki Dryden, who was part of the team coordinating the cross-border lobbying effort to rescue Afghan athletes, described the dramatic scenes of trying to get them out of the country safely.
“We evacuated more than 50 female athletes, including two Afghan Paralympians and their dependents, after lobbying by prominent figures from the sporting world,” Dryden said.
The athletes and their families have made it to other countries safely, but there are others who remain trapped in Afghanistan and are desperate to leave.
“I asked the IOC for help after the evacuations in Afghanistan. But they said no,” she added.
“The previous Taliban regime was banned from participating in the Olympics for not allowing women to play sports, which is a violation of the Olympic Charter, and for executing people in stadiums. And there is every reason to ban the current Taliban-run NOC in Afghanistan,” says Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
“…Because they are in full violation of the Olympic Charter, which requires non-discrimination, and because they are in full violation of the Olympic Agenda 2020, which calls for gender equality as one of the main goals of the IOC,” she said.
Worden expects the IOC to ban the Taliban-controlled NOC in Afghanistan at the committee’s next executive board meeting in September.
Murali Krishnan is a senior broadcast journalist and attended the ‘Play The Game’ conference in Odense, Denmark.