Khalida Popal and the struggle for Afghan women footballers
Former Afghanistan captain making the most of her new opportunities in Denmark
Afghanistan’s women’s national football team members take a break from training as a US Black Hawk helicopter lands on the pitch at a military club in Kabul. Photo: Getty Images
Khalida Popal has paid a high price for becoming the face of the Afghanistan women’s football team.
“Sometimes I still have nightmares,” she says quietly. “Those men are standing and looking at me and laughing or there is the fear that they will rape me.”
It is six years since Khalida had to leave her family and her homeland, terrified for her life and personal safety, after pioneering women’s football in a country that has been described as one of the most dangerous places to be female.
Khalida had been taught to play the sport as a young girl by her PE teacher mother, who instilled the belief that football and sport were not only fun but empowering and good for her.
That, however, was not a view many shared in a country that had until recently been run by the Taliban. From opposition in schools to name-calling in streets, Khalida saw early on the challenges she was facing.
As her campaign for more girls to be allowed to play grew she faced objections from across the board. Some were fathers and sons, who did not think their daughters and sisters should be playing football and called those who did “prostitutes” and “bitches” for compromising the honour of their family and their culture. Other critics were more highly connected.
With the growth of her profile, the success of the team and a position in the national football association she became an increasingly visible target. Garbage was thrown at her as she walked down the street, violent threats snarled in her face as well as sinister phone calls that compromised not only her own safety but that of those close to her.
She recalls: “My problem was not the Taliban with the gun, it was also the Taliban with the tie, the suit and the boots, people with the mentality of the Taliban who were against women and their voice.”
Eventually she knew she had no choice.
“I thought I have to leave otherwise I would be shot. I decided overnight. I didn’t tell anyone I was going, just my father and my mother. It was a very tough time. I didn’t know what to pack. I didn’t know when I would come back or where I would end up. I just took my bag with my computer and one picture of the team. I didn’t take my football kit. I took nothing else.
“I didn’t have time to get in touch with my team-mates, they didn’t know why I suddenly disappeared. I didn’t tell them exactly what had happened to me for a very long time, I didn’t want them to feel scared, I didn’t want them to give up because they always saw me as a leader, a powerful person who stood up for them.”
She left Kabul and made her way to India, where she lived under the radar for months, constantly on the move and terrified of being found and sent back to Afghanistan as she had no visa. Incredibly she still managed to organise a match for the national team, reassuring them that everything was fine, despite her sudden disappearance.
Eventually she managed to make her way to an asylum centre in Norway and from there to another centre in Denmark, where after nearly a year in a camp she was finally granted residency.
While she was waiting in the camp, not knowing what her future held, the enormity of everything she had been through finally caught up with her.
“I was not the woman I used to be. I said to myself so many times, I didn’t risk my life to end up in an asylum centre in Denmark; it was not the goal. I felt like a bird in a cage. I was very depressed. I stopped talking to anyone, I had those dreams where someone is coming, I was dreaming that they sent me back. I missed my team – those girls I could hear their voices calling my name and laughing. It was really tough for me.”
The opportunity to play for a local team failed to be the breakthrough she had hoped for when she suffered a career-ending knee injury.
“Suddenly I was losing everything. I’d lost my country, my identity, I was in an asylum centre, I’d lost my family, I couldn’t play. I felt like a doll hanging in the air. I could not fly in the sky and I could not come to the ground.”
With the help of a psychiatrist and antidepressants she gradually came to terms with the changes in her life. She started swimming and cycling. Working with other women in the camps she encouraged them to use sport to make themselves feel better, to have a focus and to try to think of something other than the situation they were in. As a result she set up her own organisation – Girl Power.
“Even when I was sick in the asylum centre I saw women who had worse situations than me and I wanted to save them. I was taking them out for walks and I had a football and told them: ‘Just kick the ball.’ They would be running after the ball, kicking it with bare legs and sandals.”
Girl Power finds volunteer instructors in all sports to work with the refugees and to build a bridge between them and the local Danish residents.
“Sport is a great tool to break the ice and to help women gain self-confidence,” she explains.
Khalida’s new life has helped her spot talent from refugee camps for the Afghanistan football team that she still helps run. She has also recruited American coaches who have played at the top level of women’s football and until recently they trained in the US.
I played as a defender. That is my thing, my personality – to defend women, to defend my team, to defend my gender
“We cannot continue in America because the president is against Muslims and refugees,” she says, unfazed. “If those people inside my country, those haters, couldn’t stop me, Donald Trump or a hundred Trumps will never stop me,” she says with a defiant smile. So she is already organising a training session in Asia for later in the year.
Last year she worked with Hummel, the Danish sportswear manufacturer that supports the Afghan teams, to design the first hijab that could be worn to play football.
“It was to change the mindset, sport is not against any religion or culture. It is a way to tell families that we respect your beliefs, it was to give an opportunity to girls who want to wear a hijab and play football.”
Last week, to mark International Women’s Day, her work was acknowledged by Theirworld, the global education charity founded by Sarah Brown, as part of their campaign #RewritingTheCode.
Khalida, now 29, was given the 2017 Challenge Award. The aim of the campaign is to challenge all the embedded prejudices that prevent women and girls from achieving equality.
There really is no stopping her. Her eyes glow as she talks about how she felt wearing her national shirt, touching the badge and hearing the anthem knowing the struggle she and her team faced to get there.
“I am happy that I am still involved in women’s football and happy that I can still do something for my country miles away. I played as a defender. That is my thing, my personality – to defend women, to defend my team, to defend my gender.”
Meanwhile, she is about to start a degree course in sports management and has set her sights on a job with the UN or Fifa. She has already told the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, how she believes equality could be brought to the international arena.
“I think pay should be equal for male and female players. That is what I told the president. I looked into his eyes and said: ‘Whenever you take a decision think about the father who has a son and a daughter when he is out shopping for his kids. He always wants to buy the same-value thing for both of them because he knows otherwise there will be a fight at home. Think like a father.’ He was laughing and said: ‘Yes, I will do that.’”
Having been supported by her own parents at every stage of her incredible journey, Khalida’s love and respect for her mother and father, who have now joined her in Denmark, is immense.
“I don’t know if I will ever have children but if I have a daughter I will let her decide what she wants to be. I will buy the toys she wants. I will not tell her ‘you are a girl, this toy belongs to you, this one doesn’t’. I will give her a football and a doll and let her decide.
“I am a woman, I have to be proud of being a woman. This is my identity. In order to make people respect you, you have to understand and respect who you are and what you are.”
The unstoppable force of Khalida Popal.