"How long will we not be allowed to participate in sports?" Laleh raised this question, she is a taekwondoin in Kabul. Since the Taliban's regained in 2021, authorities have shuttered most girls' secondary schools, prevented women from attending university, and banned female athletes from participating in sports. Additionally, numerous public spaces, including bathhouses, gyms, and parks, have been declared off-limits for women. In the aftermath of two years under Taliban rule, we spoke with 26 Afghan sportswomen to gain a deeper understanding of their current circumstances. In this article, we present their perspectives on where they find themselves today and share some of the compelling stories from these resilient athletes.
In the challenging landscape of Afghanistan, a prominent figure in the Taekwondo, Laleh, finds herself in a dire predicament. A dedicated athlete and an unwavering advocate for women's rights, Laleh's journey in Afghanistan's women's taekwondo division began few years before the Taliban government, marking the start of her numerous contributions to her homeland on both domestic and international stages.
Presently residing in Afghanistan, Laleh confronts grave threats to her life due to her active involvement in sports and her vocal support for women's rights. Fearing capture and torture at the hands of the Taliban, she made the heart-wrenching decision to distance herself from her own family. Her current refuge is a close friend's home, yet she remains trapped, unable to access the safety she so desperately needs.
In her words, the situation feels akin to imprisonment, devoid of the most basic comforts of life, along with the constant dread that the Taliban may locate her, subjecting her to unimaginable suffering.
In the realm of Afghan basketball, Fahmia stands as a dedicated athlete with a decade of experience, proudly wearing the jersey of the Afghanistan national basketball team. Over the years, Fahmia has been a steadfast representative of her nation in the realm of basketball. However, her journey took a distressing turn when she faced a two-year absence from the world of sports, following a recent reversal of a Taliban ban, which has cast a shadow over her once-promising future.
Much like numerous Afghan women and girls, Fahmia yearns for the opportunity to leave her homeland to pursue her dreams. Reflecting on this challenging decision, Fahmia stated, "Starting afresh in a foreign land is a daunting prospect, but given the dearth of alternatives, it remains the only path forward." Her words echo the resilience and determination that define Afghan women as they seek opportunities beyond the borders of their homeland.
Khadija, a former member of the Afghan national cycling federation team, who has competed in various provinces across the country, including Kabul, currently resides in Kabul with her family. Since the Taliban assumed control, security concerns and threats have become an everyday reality for her. Khadija's passion for sports and cycling remains unwavering. She continues her cycling exercises with fellow athletes in a discreet and secure location, emphasizing that physical activity remains a vital part of her life.
Khadija expressed her anguish over the restrictions placed on Afghan women under the Taliban's rule. She said, "Now we can't engage in public sports, attend school, or even venture into the city without a male guardian. I feel like a prisoner right now, and I can't adequately describe the pain this situation brings. All Afghan girls, including me, have been stripped of our fundamental rights since the Taliban's arrival."
In early 2019, Tamana achieved a remarkable milestone by securing the top position in a cycling competition held in Mazar-e-Sharif. Tragically, less than two years after the Taliban's takeover, Tamana found herself imprisoned by the Taliban gunmen. During her captivity, she suffered a grievous injury to her left eye. She now resides in a remote area of Afghanistan with her family, forced to leave the city due to the dangers posed by the Taliban's detention and torture.
Despite the adversity she has faced, Tamana's commitment to empowering young girls remains resolute. For the past two years, she has been providing free education to girls facing economic challenges and unable to attend school. The safety of her own home no longer allows her to maintain her exercise routine as Afghan women, post-Taliban, are barred from participating in sports activities.
"Sometimes I say to myself, I wish I were a man, one day I would have achieved my goals and dreams." Said Tamana.
Asia, a resident of Jawzjan Province and a dedicated member of the Afghanistan Boxing Federation. Currently residing in Afghanistan, Asia finds herself confined to her home, grappling with psychological and mental distress exacerbated by the prevailing uncertainties and fears. The challenging situation has taken a toll on her emotional well-being, leaving her with a sense of despair.
The uncertain future weighs heavily on Asia's mind, as she contemplates the trajectory of her life in these turbulent times. The mounting challenges have also begun to erode her passion for sports, leaving her with unanswered questions about her dreams and aspirations.
Samia, a dedicated Taekwondo athlete with nearly a decade of experience, has achieved remarkable milestones in her sporting journey. Ban on women's activities in Afghanistan cast a shadow of uncertainty over Samia's athletic journey. Undeterred, she and her fellow athletes attempted to train in secret, facing threats and warnings from the Taliban.
In a matter of months, Samia was forced to leave her homeland and seek refuge in Iran. Samia is enduring challenging days as a refuge in Iran, and her ability to continue her training has been hampered. "We are unable to participate in competitions here as refugees," said Samia.
Zahra, a dedicated taekwondo athlete from Afghanistan, has faced significant challenges since the Taliban's return to power. Fearing for her life, Zahra made the painful decision to leave her homeland and seek refuge in Iran. Her journey as a refugee in Iran has proven to be fraught with difficulties, with mental health struggles making her daily life even more challenging.
"Two years away from sports, I feel like I'm not alive." Said Zahra. She expressed deep anguish over her extended absence from training and sports. The prolonged hiatus from physical activity has left her feeling drained and fatigued. She has been unable to engage in any form of exercise. In Iran, her opportunities for training are limited, and like many Afghan refugees, she grapples with the hardships of displacement.
With arrived of the Taliban, fearing for her safety, she was compelled to leave her homeland and seek refuge in Iran. Each passing day without physical activity is a painful reminder of the goals she once aspired to achieve. She states, "It is very painful if I can't live up to my own goals. Are you saying this is not painful? This is only one of the problems I told you." Nadia hopes that one day she can represent Afghanistan in sports again.
Neelam played for her team as the goalkeeper and she achieved numerous successes in sports and participated in various competitions. Currently, Neelam resides in Afghanistan, facing extremely challenging living conditions and feeling a great deal of danger.
The Afghan Times asked Neelam if she can continue her exercise now, and she replied, "How can I exercise when I'm not allowed to leave the house without permission? With the Taliban's arrival, Afghan women and girls have lost the right to exercise, work, and basic human freedoms. This loss of our human rights is deeply painful. One of the most crucial aspects of a person's life is their health, which is nurtured through sports. Unfortunately, we have been deprived of our rights since the Taliban's takeover."
Bheshta, a player of the Afghanistan national football team, from 2017 to 2021, she proudly represented her nation on the football field. Bheshta also played a pivotal role in encouraging other Afghan girls to take up football, mentoring them for competitions and guiding them through football-related courses in Kabul province's A-leagues.
She currently resides in a remote area of Afghanistan, fearing reprisals from the Taliban due to her advocacy for women's involvement in sports. Bheshta states, "I live in a house that feels no less than a prison to me, and whenever I encounter any issue, I must venture out with a male companion, dressed in a hijab."
Fahmia represented the Herat Football Federation and was a candidate for the Women's Premier League in Kabul. She achieved the distinction of being named the best player in the Women's Premier League. Currently residing in remote, Afghanistan, Fahmia faces dire circumstances in the aftermath of the Taliban's takeover. Football, once her passion and hope, has been denied to her, and her life is fraught with fear that the Taliban may discover her identity.
Compounding her distress, Fahmia was coerced into a forced marriage following the Taliban's arrival, at her family's request. Despite the destruction of her dreams, she clings to the hope that they may one day be rekindled. Fahmia said, "I still hope that everything will go back to how it was before, and we will be allowed to sport again."
In a country stricken with adversity, Afghan athlete Ezra Aliyan has long been a symbol of perseverance and dedication. Hailing from Afghanistan, Ezra Aliyan is no stranger to the struggles faced by women in her homeland. Ezra's journey in the world of sports spans over a remarkable 12 years, during which she has relentlessly pursued her passion for athletics.
Yet, in the wake of the Taliban's resurgence, her life has taken a distressing turn. Economic hardships have placed an immense burden on her shoulders, as she shoulders the responsibility of caring for her ailing father and younger brother. The oppressive regime's ban on education, exercise, and employment has left her grappling with uncertainty and emotional distress.
Ezra's plight is a heartbreaking reflection of the dire situation faced by many Afghan women, robbed of their basic rights and freedoms. Her dreams of continuing her education and pursuing a brighter future have been cruelly dashed. The absence of opportunities for women in Afghanistan has left her with a heavy heart as she watches female athletes from foreign lands pursue their training, a stark contrast to her own restricted reality.
Rohina, a former standout player of Afghanistan's national bowling team, recently shared her harrowing journey and the challenges she faces as an Afghan athlete in exile. Rohina, who dedicated two years to representing Afghanistan in the sport of bowling, has a list of accomplishments to her name. Notably, she secured the title of "National Posh" in national competitions and performed admirably in various country-level tournaments, clinching the fourth position in one and becoming the runner-up champion in another.
Tragically, Rohina's life took a drastic turn when she felt compelled to flee Afghanistan two years following the Taliban regained power. One of the most distressing aspects of Rohina's situation is her inability to continue her athletic training in Pakistan. Additionally, she is prohibited from seeking employment, leaving her with no source of income to address her life's pressing needs.
Rohina reflects on the significant training and dedication she invested in her sport over two years in Afghanistan, aspiring to bring honor to her nation in the field of sports and secure a bright future for herself. Losing everything overnight has been a deeply painful experience.
Samira, who proudly achieved a red belt in taekwondo. Her life took a stark turn as she currently resides in India, grappling with the harsh realities of being an immigrant. Alone and far from home, she paints a bleak picture of her existence, highlighting the absence of basic necessities such as work, education, and healthcare. This dire situation has taken a toll on her spirit, casting a shadow over her future.
Samira bemoans the precarious state of Afghan women, who are not only deprived of access to education but also barred from participating in sports clubs. She vividly recalls her training days when the gym was strictly reserved for boys, leaving girls like her excluded and disheartened.
As she shares her thoughts, Samira's words are heavy with emotion, reflecting the profound disappointment of seeing her dreams crumble amidst the turmoil in her homeland. Yet, she remains hopeful that, should fate guide her to a safer haven, she would eagerly return to the sport she loves, demonstrating the resilience that has been a hallmark of her journey.
Khatamin, a Taekwondo athlete from Afghanistan, with a decade-long commitment to Taekwondo, Khatamin proudly represented Afghanistan in numerous exercises and competitions. Her dedication bore fruit, as she earned recognition both within Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
However, due to economic hardships and a multitude of other adversities in Pakistan, Khatamin was compelled to return to her homeland. The transition has taken a heavy toll on her psychological and emotional well-being. In the wake of the Taliban's resurgence, female athletes in Afghanistan find themselves ensnared in a web of restrictions, enduring immense mental and emotional strain. Khatamin, as a fellow female athlete, empathizes with the complex and challenging circumstances they all face.
Presently, the situation is dire for all Afghan female athletes, including Khatamin. Not only are they unable to continue their training, but they have also been deprived of education and the right to work. Their mobility in public spaces is severely curtailed. Khatamin's dire predicament has been exacerbated by death threats stemming from her participation in sports and competitions.
Khatamin's distress is palpable, and every day she grapples with uncertainty about her future. Tragically, some young female athletes are coerced into marriage by their families. The arrival of the Taliban has ushered in an era where female athletes are denied the basic rights to exercise, pursue education, and work. Even when Khatamin ventures outside, she must don a hijab, yet the fear persists. She, like others in her position, faces an ominous threat to her life.
Aqile, a former member of the national football teams of Balkh and Kabul Provinces in Afghanistan. From 2013 to 2017, Aqile was a source of pride for her homeland as she donned the national colors on the football field. However, her life took an abrupt and unsettling turn when she arrived in Pakistan a year ago. She reflects, "I've been in Pakistan for a year now and I'm not in a very good condition at all, only my sports dreams are completely gone."
In Pakistan, Aqile and her fellow Afghan nationals confront numerous obstacles. She describes the pervasive harassment they endure in Pakistani society, saying, "Because we are completely harassed in Pakistani society, we cannot continue our course." These challenges range from derogatory comments and verbal abuse by locals during outdoor activities to the looming threat of arbitrary arrest. Aqile added, "I get harassed by the local people when I go out for climbing or other sports. And they call me different names, abuse me, and I am even afraid of being arrested by the police."
Adding to her plight, Aqile's Pakistani visa has expired, leaving her in a state of constant dread. She fears the possibility of deportation to Afghanistan, where the resurgence of the Taliban threatens her safety and well-being. She confides, "My Pakistani visa has expired. I am afraid that if the police arrest me and deport me to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill me or torture me like other girls."
As Aqile shares her story, she turns her attention to the broader plight of Afghan women. Her words resonate with pain and resilience as she states, "Don't ask about the pain of Afghan women, how much pain we have and how much we suffer. Afghan women always continue to build, they fight, and the pains are always understandable."
Aqile emphasizes the dire situation, stating, "Afghan women, especially the girls who were engaged in sports during the republic, are in the dark and have no hope of living."
Tamna, a talented women's football athlete, she had proudly represented Afghanistan in the national women's football teams from 2018 until the Taliban regained power on August 2021. Today, Tamna resides in Kabul, where her aspirations for education and football remain unattainable. The current situation confines her to her home, with limited freedom to roam, study, or pursue her passion for football. The uncertainty of the future weighs heavily on her, as she yearns for the day when she can return to the pitch.
In her poignant words, Tamna expresses the frustration of many Afghan women athletes, saying, "It's very painful that boys can but women can't achieve their dreams and ideals, but no one hears their voices, and they wait impatiently, hoping for the day to enter the beautiful and green football field again."
Nasera, a dedicated volleyball athlete with almost five years of experience. Nasera's journey in volleyball saw her actively participating in national competitions as a valued member of the selected national team. Her dedication and passion for sports were evident in her achievements and contributions to her country's athletic endeavors.
Since the arrival of the Taliban, Nasera finds herself confined to her home, devoid of any activities. The oppressive conditions have compelled her to withdraw from sports, work, and studies, an unfortunate situation that has cast a long shadow of despair over the lives of Afghan girls.
She articulates this grim truth, saying, "Even if the Taliban find out that the girls used to exercise and are still here, they might arrest us."
The collective hardship shared by all Afghan girls, who have been forcibly prevented from pursuing sports and education, has cast a cloud of hopelessness over their lives. Nasera concludes with a heartbreaking reflection, stating, "We all live in despair, and it is not more difficult for us than this."
Arezoo, a dedicated athlete with nine years of experience in the sports of Jujitsu and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Currently residing in Pakistan, Arezoo's life has taken a dramatic turn. Her arrival in Islamabad, Pakistan, following a competition in Karachi, has been marred by the absence of training opportunities. She reveals the heartbreaking reason behind this, stating, "I haven't had any training. The reason is that my coach is still under arrest by the police in Karachi, Pakistan, because he is Afghan refugee here."
In Islamabad, the financial burden associated with training becomes a significant hurdle. Arezoo cannot afford to hire a trainer or join a club to continue her athletic pursuits. The absence of support from sports organizations compounds her challenges, leaving her in a state of uncertainty and stagnation.
She empathizes with their plight, saying, "After the arrival of the Taliban, I know many Afghan female athletes who are facing a very painful and difficult situation." Arezoo, too, finds herself grappling with the consequences of the current turmoil, as her dreams and hopes for the future are threatened. The inability to train and the deteriorating situation have begun to erode her achievements and impact her prospects in MMA.
Kobra, a promising athlete with three years of experience in the field of Taekwondo. Kobra's journey in Taekwondo has been marked by notable Arezoo. (Courtesy of Arezoo) achievements. She proudly holds a green belt in Taekwondo competitions and has actively participated in numerous contests within Kabul province.
Presently residing in Afghanistan, Kobra's life has taken a distressing turn. The challenges she faces have escalated as she and her family have been forced to change their place of residence multiple times due to threats and fears.
Kobra said, "Currently, I can't do any kind of training. Every day I am looking for how to go to a safe place from Afghanistan to live in a foreign country for my bright future, and there is no safe place to live in Afghanistan." The weight of these problems has taken a toll on her mental and emotional well-being.
The arrival of the Taliban marked a turning point in her life. "I lost all the hopes and dreams I had, and now I am facing an unknown future," she reflects, her words tinged with despair.
The current situation has left Kobra grappling with uncertainty, both mentally and spiritually. The burdens she carries from her challenging circumstances have taken a profound toll on her well-being, and she remains uncertain about what the future holds.
Ruqiya, a taekwondo athlete with a decade of experience in Afghanistan. The arrival of the Taliban marked a dark turn in Ruqiya's life, as she faced numerous threats that compelled her to make a heart wrenching decision. She chose to leave her homeland and family behind, seeking refuge in Iran. Her hopes for resuming her athletic career, however, have been dashed by the similarity in laws governing women's activities in both Afghanistan and Iran, effectively preventing Afghan female athletes from practicing their sports.
Ruqiya's lament is palpable as she reflects, "It is very painful for me that all my past achievements and efforts are not counted. Before the arrival of the Taliban, I continued my education along with sports." Her dreams of pursuing both education and sports have been cruelly disrupted by the circumstances.
The weight of the difficult situation takes its toll on Ruqiya, as she expresses her exhaustion and a sense of hopelessness, saying, "I am very tired of this difficult situation, and I have no hope that I will reach my hopes again."
Golsoom, an athlete with six years of experience in taekwondo and a dedicated trainer in the sport, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The situation in Kabul, Afghanistan, has taken a bleak turn, with Golsoom and her fellow citizens deprived of their basic rights. Under threat within the confines of her own home, she is unable to venture outside. The ban on engaging in sports activities has compounded her difficulties. Golsoom is also the primary breadwinner for her family, but since the Taliban's return, she has been stripped of all employment opportunities, including her role as a trainer for female athletes.
For two long years, Golsoom has been unable to practice her beloved taekwondo. The Taliban's closure of all women's sports clubs has left her with few options. She attempted to open her own club several times, only to face threats and the ominous specter of imprisonment by the Taliban. This extended hiatus has taken a toll on her skills and the progress she had made in her training. Golsoom now finds herself in an uncertain situation, with diminishing hope and an increasing burden of mental distress.
In a heartfelt plea, Golsoom expresses her hope that her voice and the voices of all female athletes stuck in Afghanistan will be heard and that the sports organizations responsible for their well-being will be safeguarded.
Jafarai is a former athlete from Herat, Afghanistan. This former athlete's journey in sports included three disciplines: running, cycling, and volleyball. She proudly represented Herat as a member of the local team and had the honor of being part of the Afghan National Volleyball team.
However, the Jafarai's life has taken a distressing turn as she currently resides in Herat, Afghanistan, living in secrecy due to the dire circumstances. When asked about her ability to continue participating in sports, the athlete sadly reveals that the Taliban's oppressive rule has effectively stripped Afghan women of their rights to engage in sports and pursue education. She said, "I can only say that I lived the sport of volleyball, and now the current conditions are difficult not only for me, but also for my teammates and all the girls of my country. We are just alive and breathing."
Kobra, a remarkable athlete hailing from Afghanistan. Her passion for sports continued to grow, leading her to Taekwondo, where she earned a black belt and earned numerous accolades through intra-city competitions in Herat.
Kobra's struggles extend beyond finding a place to live. She faces economic hardships, and the toll on her mental health. The inability to continue her sports training, a lifelong passion, has taken a toll on her emotional well-being. "I exercised since I knew myself. When I couldn't exercise anymore, I became depressed," she shares. Her daily routine is marred by sleepless nights, limited food intake, and a constant struggle with depression and anxiety, all of which have taken a toll on her health and overall well-being.
Zainab, a former football athlete, from 2013 to 2021, Zainab dedicated herself to football, and her achievements speak volumes about her commitment. However, Zainab's life took an unfortunate turn with the rise of the Taliban. She finds herself in Afghanistan, where her dreams of continuing her sports have been dashed.
The profound impact on her mental and emotional well-being is evident as she expresses, "This situation has really affected my soul and mind, and it is holding me back from my career and life." Yet, her spirit remains unbroken as she clings to the hope that one day, she will regain the freedom to pursue sports, work, education, and the basic rights of human freedom that she longs for.
Sonia a talented Muay Thai athlete from Afghanistan. This dedicated athlete spent three years honing her skills in douche and Muay Thai, with dreams of representing her nation at the highest level.
Presently residing in Afghanistan, she finds herself in an excruciatingly difficult situation. As the head of her family following her father's passing and with her elderly, ailing mother in her care, the weight of responsibility rests heavily on her shoulders. The arrival of the Taliban has brought a series of restrictions, depriving her of the ability to work, engage in sports, or even step outside. Her mother and brother depend on her, making her situation all the more dire.
Despite these dire circumstances, this Muay Thai perseveres, continuing her sports training. However, the inability to access her usual training facilities has taken a toll on her mental and emotional well-being.