Kicking a ball around the schoolyard has been a right of passage for children all over the world, but for former Afghanistan women’s captain Khalida Popal, playing football nearly cost her her life.
“It was really dangerous, I can’t forget that time or that moment, where I felt I may no longer be alive. It was the moment I became the leader of women’s football in Afghanistan. My voice was stronger and stronger and I changed the nation, from just playing football to talking about women’s rights and issues women are facing in the country.
“There were people who were really against my activities and against women’s development. They didn’t like me to be there, they didn’t like to hear or to see women developing a strong voice. Women not obeying men’s rules or women who want to be leaders and stand in front and encourage others. When men begin to lose their power to women, it gets very dangerous because men don’t want to lose their power.”
Popal began playing football as a teenager in Kabul behind closed doors after school. In order to not get caught she and her friends would play in silence so the Taliban guards on the other side of the school wall would not hear them.
Despite the danger and difficulties, the 29-year-old still fondly remembers the first time she kicked a ball.
Introduction to the game
“It was a great day, it was raining and almost autumn. I remember one of my classmates and I had an old ball, a very old one and we took it and were kicking the ball with normal shoes. At that time there were no special football shoes.
“It was fantastic, we were laughing a lot and really enjoying the time playing football. We were wearing our school uniforms with scarves on and we were running like crazy and got so tired.”
It was not too long before those post-school kickabouts were replaced by something that was going to take over Popal’s life. “Very quickly the idea changed from just having fun to really taking the game seriously; when I began to face problems and ignorance, and some of the men started against me and against our game that we were playing.
“The community didn’t want to accept us, we were playing what has always been thought of as a man’s game in our country. The view was that women should always be at home, just be a machine that washes and were used by men, that is the culture of women in Afghanistan.
“It was just after Taliban had left the country, it was a really tough time for women, especially those who played football, studied or went to work.”
The women who played football were accused of flouting Islam and called prostitutes by their detractors.
Popal continued: “Of course there is nothing in the Koran which says you shouldn’t play football. The religion is apart from sports. Playing football is good for the women’s health and is not against religion. Women against women playing sport is not sexual and is not against any kind of religion, let alone Islam.”
Despite the odds
Despite the difficulties that Popal and her team-mates faced, they were determined to try to inspire the next generation—and in 2007 the Afghanistan women’s football team were formed. Their first game was against an International Security Assistance Forces team at the Ghazi Stadium in Kabul in the same year. Afghanistan won 5-0, but the match was about so much more than that, considering what had happened in the Ghazi Stadium in previous years.
Citing Sharia law, Taliban officials carried out lashings, stonings, amputations and executions in public places such as squares, schools or sports grounds.
The sports stadiums in Kabul and Kandahar were notorious for such spectacles with thousands of people attending.
“I remember the time that we played in the same stadium in Kabul where women were shot. It was kind of a revolution, a huge change. I remember thinking that it was a huge change because before, women were shot in that penalty area and now I was kicking a football there,” said Popal.
“It was emotional, but I was feeling the power, the power to change something, I was fighting for that woman who was killed and not to have to go back to a that situation when innocent women were shot.”
First international cap
In December 2010, Afghanistan’s women played their first international, a 13-0 defeat by Nepal at the South Asian Women’s Football Championship in Bangladesh.
“I remember we went to an international tournament and we stood under our flag,” said Popal. “I remember the first time we heard the national anthem, it was emotional, we were all crying because it was such a great achievement for us.
“The first time I wore the national team shirt I was very proud, I felt like I won the fight I was battling for a long time. We fought for that jersey and for that uniform and finally we got permission to earn that moment.”
In April 2011 Popal decided that she needed to leave Afghanistan for her own safety. With the help of a friend she fled to India, where she lived underground.
“At the time I needed the most protection, my country closed the door. I went to the government and I asked them to help me, but they didn’t. It is my land, it is my country, it is my identity and when the time came when I, and others needed their help, they closed the door. You feel broken and it hurts really bad. When you are fighting you don’t want to lose, but you have to accept you lost and the feeling that you left that battle, that nation.”
Life as a refugee
Popal now lives as a refugee in Denmark, but remains very involved in Afghan women’s football. She also worked very closely with the sportswear company Hummel to design a lightweight hijab, to make it easier for the players who choose to wear it.
“It will change the mentality of some of the families, who say it is against the culture for them to play. Wearing a hijab will open the door for them to play. Those who wear the new hijab have found that it makes playing easier, it is more comfortable and so much better than wearing a big scarf which slows you down.”
Afghanistan have climbed to 108 in the Fifa world rankings and Popal remains very proud of what they have been able to achieve.
“It was worth it to take that step or that fight. It doesn’t matter where I end up or where I am in the world. I will continue to participate and co-ordinate the programmes and help my country from far away. That is the thing that has kept me alive and happy and it motivates me to work hard for my country, because I love my country.”
Khalida Popal was speaking to the BBC World Service as part of the Elite to grassroots football series.