Young girl wearing a black dress and white head cloth plays with a soccer ball on a dusty footpath in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Return to Misogyny Under Taliban Rule: Afghan Women Banned From Sports

For many of us, sport is an essential part of our lives. Whether you play competitively or just for fun, it’s a chance to connect with others, improve your mental health and increase your confidence. Even if you don’t participate in sport, you probably have relative freedom to change your mind at will. However, Afghan women do not carry such liberties. The recently imposed Taliban regime prohibits Afghan women from playing cricket and other sports. The primary reason behind this imposition is, rather baselessly, that ‘girls do not need sports’, especially when it might expose their bodies in our media age. Above all, as something that hugely enhances our health and wellbeing, vetoing sport is nothing short of a ludicrous imposition on basic human rights.

Overview of the Taliban’s impositions on Afghan women

Four Afghan women huddled in a line and draped in blue head and body coverings, one woman in the middle wears orange
Image Source: Wally Skalij/Getty Images

In the early 1990s, the Taliban extended their dominance across Afghanistan through bribery and force of arms. The militant group used the central religious text of Islam (the Qur’an) as the groundwork to institutionalise restrictive measures on women as law.

The restrictions stood in stark contrast to the basic rights we afford women in many other parts of the world. For example, the Taliban outlawed education for girls over the age of eight. Moreover, they forbid women from working and leaving the home unless it was for basic needs such as shopping. Even when they ventured into public, they had to do so quietly and discretely with their entire bodies and faces covered.

The laws also banned women’s voices from radio and other communication settings. They were not permitted to speak loudly in public and were forbidden to appear on their home balconies.

Contrary to most global healthcare rights, the Taliban barred women from seeking medical treatment from a male doctor (unless a male family member accompanied them). But since there were limited female health professionals in employment, women needing medical attention often endured prolonged suffering and premature death.

Outlawing the image and word of ‘women’

The Taliban outlawed physical women from existing in many spaces, but also any representations of women in image or language. It was illegal for anyone to exhibit images of women both in public and within the home. Moreover, the Taliban rule modified any place names that contained the word ‘women.’ For instance, ‘Women’s garden’ was renamed ‘Springtime garden,’ and females were only allowed to enter this space when escorted by a male relative. The militant group later desolated the garden, stripped it of its flora and transformed it into a garbage dump. Certainly, this is a symbolic vision of how radical Islamic beliefs perceive women and women’s spaces.

A woman walks down a stone path in the middle of a garden
Kabul women’s garden/Image Source: Christoph Bangert for The New York Times

Small steps for Afghan women’s rights after 2001

In 2001, the U.S. military began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces with help from Britain. Subsequently, the Taliban retreated in late 2001. In the following years, there were some improvements for Afghan women and their position in society. For example, women had better access to education, returned to the workforce, and amplified their political voices against Afghanistan’s governance. In 2001, the Afghan Interim Administration established the Ministry of Women’s Affairs – the lead agency for supporting women’s rights and advancement in Afghanistan.

The Taliban crushes women’s efforts in 2021

With the Taliban taking control of most of Afghanistan once again in 2021, there are grave concerns about the future of the country’s women. The Minister for Women, for example, revealed to the ABC that she fled Afghanistan undercover in the ‘most difficult situation and decision’ of her life. The Taliban’s most recent imposition of a ban on sport for Afghan women represents the beginning of a return to the misogynistic and restrictive framework that dominated women’s lives in the 1990s.

Members of the Taliban dressed in army clothes stand in a line holding guns with people holding flags around them
Image Source: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images

Taliban policies breach universally recognised human rights

There are certain Taliban policies that contravene basic human rights embedded in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). Article 2 of the UNDHR states:

‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.’

Taliban gender policies vs UNDHR

A blue square with white text reading 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' with the United Nations crest symbol below
Image Source: UN
Taliban gender policies UNDHR
Women must not speak loudly in public and cannot express their views over radio/TV or at public gatherings Article 19

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Women caught breaking rules are treated with extreme violence Article 5

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

All women should be banned from employment Article 23

Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

 

Girls above the age of 8 cannot access education Article 26

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

Women cannot seek medical treatment from a male doctor without a mahram* Article 25

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

 

Women should only appear in public to carry out essential tasks such as shopping Article 13(a)

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

*Mahram = accompanying male relative

Banning sport for Afghan women echoes the ruthless regimes of the past

Afghan woman in red sporting clothes throwing a cricket ball
Image Source: cricketcountry.com

When the US withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 2021, the government collapsed. But the Taliban promised a ‘new era of peace’ in the country. However, those who remember the militant group’s brutal rule of the past are fearful that the decades of work to achieve rights for women and ethnic minorities will be demolished. Most importantly, the Taliban’s recent announcement that it will ban sport for women echoes the restrictive, gendered policies of the past.

In an exclusive interview with SBS News, the Taliban’s cultural commission deputy head maintained that sport is not important for women:

‘I don’t think women will be allowed to play cricket because it is not necessary that women should play cricket.’

In addition, the Taliban believe the public should not see a women’s body uncovered or exposed. Playing sport may expose a woman’s body, particularly in the media age. As stated by the Taliban’s deputy head of cultural commission:

‘In cricket, they might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this […] It is the media era, and there will be photos and videos, and then people watch it. Islam and the Islamic Emirate do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sports where they get exposed.’

Think back to the early 1990s when Afghan women could be present in public if covered from head to toe. The Taliban’s concerns about women exposing themselves in public certainly echo the past’s restrictive policies in the contemporary era.

Australia responds to Taliban ban

Richard Colbeck, Australia’s Minister for Sport, said the Taliban’s decision is ‘deeply concerning’ and that ‘excluding women from sport at any level is unacceptable.’ Certainly, there is mounting pressure on universal bodies such as the International Cricket Council to take action against the restrictive policies.

An Australian man dressed in yellow bats a cricket ball next to a blue Afghan player standing behind the stumps
Image Source: thecorrespondent.pk

In dissent of the Taliban’s decision, the Australian cricket team has decided it will not play Afghanistan in the upcoming test match scheduled for the 27th of November. Cricket Australia says:

‘Driving the growth of women’s cricket globally is incredibly important to Cricket Australia. Our vision for cricket is that it is a sport for all and we support the game unequivocally for women at every level.’

What does the Taliban’s ban mean for Afghanistan in the sporting world?

A group of Afghan female cricket players dressed in purple hold hands and form a circle
Image Source: thenews.com.pk

For many sporting bodies – including the International Cricket Council – having a women’s team is necessary to qualify for full membership. Afghanistan only met this criterion in 2017, but its recent disruption threatens its status to participate in the sporting world.

Sport through the eyes of Afghan women

Afghan female football players from Isteghlal (in purple) and Afghan (red) compete during the women's football tournament final match in Kabul on December 6, 2013. Afghan defeated Isteghlal to win the tournament. The month-long women's football tournament, which saw some 16 teams participate, was held to select top players for the Afghan national women's football team.
Image Source: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

For many Afghan women, sport does more than make them feel physically strong. Frozan Rasooli, an Afghan national women’s cycling team member, says the sport has dramatically improved her mental health. And a former Afghan football captain Khalida Popal says that before the Taliban took over, sport was a crucial channel that fostered the persistent fight for women’s rights. Sadly, some women feel they ‘no longer have anything to live for’ if they cannot play sport.

Afghan women remain hopeful

Afghan women holding signs protesting for women's rights in Afghanistan
Image Source: Reuters via The Guardian

Wida Zemarai, the former goalkeeper for the Afghan women’s national football team, is worried about what the Taliban’s latest imposition will do to the dreams of Afghan women:

‘They are in a sort of a prison, and all they can do is look out the window […] What we built in 20 years is gone in five seconds.’

But Zemarai remains hopeful:

‘…they are strong, and they are protesting, saying that they will never allow the Taliban to take control over them.’

Similarly, Rasooli believes in the power of Afghan women to fight back:

‘Women … have had this freedom. They are not just going to sit quietly; they will fight back […] Just look at the protests across the country. Just because the Taliban says that sports for women are banned doesn’t mean that everyone will sit back and accept it.’

Protesting against Taliban rule

A group of Afghan women stand in a line holding paper signs advoacting for women's rights
Image Source: AAP via riverineherald.com.au

Indeed, Afghan women are not staying silent. Putting their lives at risk, dozens of women took to the streets of Western Afghanistan. They protested against the Taliban’s restrictions and empty promises of protecting rights, chanting ‘don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid…we are together.’ Others held signs that read ‘azadi’, or freedom.

How can we support the women in Afghanistan?

An Afghan woman dressed in blue smiles at the camera with a child to her left and two other women to her right
Image Source: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In what the United Nations describe as a ‘humanitarian catastrophe,’ women in Afghanistan are living in a state of frightening uncertainty; they fear for their safety and their livelihoods. Furthermore, the strict Taliban rule undermines women’s access to education and employment. Females in positions of power are virtually unheard of. In other words, the Taliban are relegating women from the public sphere and suppressing their voices – this is where we must use ours.

National sporting groups like Cricket Australia have already taken a stand. However, there is more we can do as individuals to advocate for Afghan women’s rights. Firstly, we can advocate and lobby our governments to help support Afghan refugees. Secondly, we can donate to organisations that promote and protect the rights of Afghan women.

Advocate for refugees

Days after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul, thousands of desperate citizens scrambled to flee the country.

Our communities can help refugees in several ways. For example, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is recruiting volunteers to ‘help our Afghan Allies.’ Volunteers can help in various ways. For instance, picking up refugees at airports or providing meal assistance and tutoring. Additionally, you can also donate here.

You could also write to your local government and express your concerns about women in Afghanistan. Ask your government to be understanding and inclusive of those fleeing their home countries. For example, by considering financial support and eliminating barriers like securing visas. You may feel that your single voice won’t make a difference. But remember that in speaking up and advocating, you are doing so in place of a woman who can’t.

Donate to organisations that support Afghan women

Organisations that work directly with women and girls in Afghanistan need funds. Below is a non-exhaustive list of groups that are urgently calling for funds to protect and promote the rights and safety of Afghan women.

  • Women for Afghan Women (WAW) DONATE
  • Women’s Peace & Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) DONATE
  • Global Fund for Women DONATE
  • Madre DONATE
  • The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) DONATE
  • International Rescue Committee (IRC) DONATE
  • Afghanaid DONATE

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