October 3, 2016
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Women’s soccer has been on the rise since the late 19th century, starting in Europe and spreading throughout the rest of the world. For some countries, women’s soccer recently earned its place as one of the most popular sports among all ages. For other countries however, women continue to fight for their right to play.
Coming from all over the world, the players on the Afghanistan Women’s National Soccer Team came together to play a friendly game and tournament in the Bay Area. Most of the team is made up of Afghan refugees or children of refugees. Six players from the team live in Afghanistan, yet only one was able to obtain a visa to fly out of the country. The team is currently making final roster cuts, and preparing for the 2016 Women’s South Asian Football Federation Cup in November. Their road to becoming a national team has come with many challenges, but the team has stayed strong and never given up.
In 2007, the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee formed the first female Afghan team comprised of only school girls from Kabul, Afghanistan. That same year, the team played against the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and won their first game in history, 5-0. The team continued on with much success throughout their first year, as they reached the final stage in the second national tournament of Pakistan.
Their success in the tournament allowed them to travel to Germany in 2008 to hold a training camp in an attempt to improve the quality of their program, and later that year, the team traveled to Jordan to participate in the Islamic Countries Women’s Football Tournament. Despite the less favorable results in this tournament, qualifying for their first tournament acted as the first stepping stone on the pathway to the team’s acceptance and support.
This 2016 year marks an important year for the Afghanistan Women’s National Team. The team has received the support from the Afghanistan Football Federation and has hired a new coaching staff. The new coaches plan on preparing the team for their fourth year of participation in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Women’s Championship in India this November. The team is currently coached by its founder, Kelly Lindsey, a former U.S. National team and San Jose CyberRays (WUSA) defender. Lindsey is assisted by goalkeeper coach Haley Carter, who is a former goalkeeper for the NWSL’s Houston Dash and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.
In a country still recovering from Taliban rule, especially through the oppression of women and their rights, this is a pioneering team that has fought long and hard to play soccer. Under the Taliban, women were restricted from attending school and work. Women were not allowed to partake in social activities, and lived in fear due to threats.
23 year-old Frozan Tajali is an example of a player whose decisions have not been widely accepted in Afghanistan. She has faced a multitude of threats from people in her community about her choice to be a female soccer player.
“Playing football in a male dominated country like Afghanistan is not easy, the death threats and cultural obstacles that we face… never [make] us feel weak and never stop us [from] dreaming for our future as women,” Tajali explained on girlpowerorg.com.
Through hardships and obstacles often comes lessons and growth, and Tajali has seen this in her own life while dealing with this persecution.
“Football changed my life and my personality. Football made me a very strong fighter and a strong woman; a woman with passion and goals,” Tajali explained on girlpowerorg.com. “I used football as a tool to stand against all obstacles and problems, which I was and am facing as [a woman] in a male dominated country like Afghanistan.”
Having to fight hard for what you want often makes the end result even sweeter. The players on the Afghanistan Women’s National Team (WNT) believe that they must do everything in their power in order to earn what they rightfully deserve: the freedom to play soccer.
“When I was selected at the national team of Afghanistan, I was feeling very proud, and [I was] crying,” Tajali wrote on girlpowerorg.com. “It was like a dream come true. I was flying from happiness.”
Currently, Afghanistan is made up of 34 different provinces, but women’s soccer is only being played in six of those provinces: Bamyan, Ghazni, Jowzjan, Balkh, Herat, and Kabul. However, the national team continues to encourage other parts of their country to join them and build a greater equality in sports for both men and women.
“Other provinces do not accept women playing… football or other sports,” 23 year-old Hajar Abulfazil explained. “But we try to increase our players in Afghanistan from other provinces.”
Even within the provinces that do have women’s soccer, the idea of women playing sports is still not fully accepted by many people. The players know that changing people’s minds will not be easy, and that they will need to work in order to shift people’s longlasting ideas.
“Living in Kabul… we have a lot of friends from several families. They have several ideas, and some of them are open minded ideas and some are dark [minded], but everytime I talk with them about education and working, I will comment about football, and how ‘you should let [girls play] football,’” Abulfazil commented.
Many of the people whose minds these players are striving to change are those of their own family members. Many families are accepting, like in Abulfazil’s case, but often they are also not so understanding.
“It is not easy, because fighting with family and fighting with people is not good,” Abulfazil said. “My mother and father…always taught me ‘you should be like one Afghan girl, one Muslim girl.’ I say, ‘I accept all of the things you say, but I want one thing from all of you, I want to play football because I love football and I should represent my country to all of the world because Afghanistan is like other countries who want peace and to make people happy.’ And my family says, ‘Yes you should go, and we are with you.’ And every time they encourage me and they push me.’”
Two girls in particular from the team shared their personal stories.
Hajar Abulfazil – Kabul, Afghanistan, 23
Leaving the house to go play soccer is not as simple of a task as it may appear. There seem to be more risks than there are rewards, yet Hajar Abulfazil continues to do what she loves, and stands for what she deserves.
“When you go outside the men look at you like you are food or something, they do not respect you as a woman…It is hard,” Abulfazil said.
She faces these challenges each day in Kabul, Afghanistan whenever she leaves the house.
“It is very hard in Afghanistan to play football as a woman,” Abulfazil said, “the security is not good in Kabul.”
The everyday commodities that we often take for granted, like leaving the house to go out with friends or going to sports practice are not as easily achievable for women in Afghanistan, and they often come with security risks.
“It is dangerous…you cannot just say, ‘Oh I am going to hangout with my friends on the streets…you do not have that freedom. When you are going outside, you are running from security,’” Abulfazil said.
Aside from the physical risks, Abulfazil is on the receiving end of many negative comments about her decision to play soccer.
“Teachers insulted me for [playing soccer],” Abulfazil wrote in an article on girlpowerorg.com, “my sport instructor was my lone supporter.”
Going against cultural norms, Abulfazil has acknowledged that it will take time for people in Afghanistan to fully support and accept many girls’ decisions to play soccer. People have told her that Muslim women are not allowed to play sports in public, and that by doing so she is going against the rules of Islam.
“Football is very new for our people, and everybody is saying you should stay at home, wash the dishes, and cook for men,” she said. “If you are wearing sport clothes and going outside, it is not easy for Afghan men to accept.”
Abulfazil not only plays for the team, but she also encourages other girls to play as well. She travels the world and gives speeches about their team.
“She represents the Afghanistan national team to other people… and explains that soccer is not a bad thing” teammate Nilofar Yaqoubi explained.
Nilofar Yaqoubi – Delft, Netherlands, 24
Born in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, 24-year-old Nilofar Yaqoubi is now living in Delft, Netherlands. Yaqoubi left Afghanistan with her family at the age of five, and after traveling through Pakistan, they moved to the Netherlands.
“It was a very hard journey. When we got to the Netherlands, we were reunited with my grandparents,” Yaqoubi wrote on girlpowerorg.com.
After hearing about the Afghanistan WNT, Yaqoubi got in contact with players on the team, had skype conversations about how she was doing, and in 2014 was invited to train with the team in Pakistan.
“I always wanted to play for the national team it was like a dream you know?…it was my first time so I had no idea what’s going on and how it was going to be and how I was going to play because none of us played together,” Yaqoubi said.
Yaqoubi was not able to play in the team’s games during their trip to California due to an ACL injury, but she still traveled down to cheer her teammates on.
“Although I won’t be able to play, I will be there… to be with my team to support them, to get to know everybody and to be part of it,” Yaqoubi wrote via girlpowerorg.com.
Aside from playing soccer, Yaqoubi has pursued a career in fashion blogging, and posts on her website at www.vannillio.com.
“I visit a lot of fashion shows, do some styling and give advice. My goal… is that one day I can have my own fashion line,” Yaqoubi explained.
In efforts to get back on the field with her team, Yaqoubi continues to train, and has found the encouragement she needs from within her team.
“I’m very motivated and think it’s wonderful that our national team is getting a new chance,” Yaqoubi wrote.
The Teams’ Uniforms
The team is sponsored by Hummel, a sportswear company that is based in Denmark, and the girls sport their new-and-improved uniforms with integrated hijabs. The hijabs are connected to the base layer of their uniform, allowing players who regularly wear them to play more freely. The uniforms also include leggings which allow the players to uphold the guidelines of their religion by being covered head-to-toe.
Hummel tried to design the team’s uniforms in hopes of symbolizing the deep Afghan history. The country’s traditional dress style is incorporated into the trim of their sleeves. The team calls themselves “the lions of Afghanistan” and Hummel used this motif in the designing of the uniform, demonstrating the courage the players show each time they walk onto the field.
Game Against Palo Alto
The players on the Afghanistan WNT all met each other for the first time three days before their game against the Palo Alto SC 98G team. Some of the players had played together before, but with the revamping of their team, many of the players were meeting and playing with each other for the first time.
The day before the game was played, the players on the two teams had the opportunity to meet and have dinner together. The players bonded over music and knockout, and had lots of laughs despite the language barrier between some of the players.
“Knowing the players before the game made playing them more enjoyable because we already had gotten to know them and their experiences and what they’ve been through,” Sarah Shapiro (‘17), who plays on the Palo Alto team, said. “We all came from such different backgrounds but our common bond was soccer, and it ended up being a really fun, eye-opening experience.”
The game was played on Wednesday, August 31 at the Cubberley Football Field in Palo Alto, and by the time the first whistle blew, the stands were filled with fans there to support not only their respective teams, but to support all Afghan women who want and deserve to be able to play soccer freely.
Palo Alto scored three goals in the first half and the Afghanistan WNT came back with a goal in the second half. The game ended in a 3-1 win for Palo Alto, but at the end of the day, even if the players forget the result of the game, they will never forget the people they met, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they were able to experience. This was a very impressive feat for the Afghanistan WNT as they had only been playing together for three days, whereas the majority of the Palo Alto team had been playing with together since second grade.
At the end of the game, lots of pictures were taken with opposing team players to remind the girls of the amazing bonds that were formed in just a matter of hours.
“When it came to the game it was a really special day for them, and it was special for us because of that,” Shapiro said.
That weekend, the Afghanistan WNT competed in the AFSO tournament that was held in Dublin, California. The team won all four of their games and went on the win the Championship game 1-0.
The worldwide soccer community is greater than you might realize, with 270 million people who are directly involved with the sport. This number does not include the countless number of other fans who rely on the freedoms the players should have to play soccer, as a form of entertainment. The opportunity to play against another country’s national team is a great honor, and the Palo Alto community will never forget this game. The fact that the Afghanistan Women’s National Team was able to travel down to California shows just how much has improved regarding women’s rights in their country. Although significant, the stories and experiences the players have shared make it evident that more change still needs to come in order for the players to be able to fully practice the freedoms they deserve.