Khalida Popal – the former Afghanistan women’s national team captain and human rights campaigner – remembers all too vividly what it was like the first time the Taliban took control of her country.
“I was only eight years old, and I was young,” she tells World Football Summit ahead of her participation at WFS Europe on 23 September at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
“I remember asking my father the question when they first announced that girls cannot go to school, I kept asking my father: ‘Why don’t they allow me to go to school? Why are they deciding for me?'”
Like so many fathers now being asked the same question since Afghanistan fell for a second time to the group, her father didn’t have an answer.
Twenty years on from the Taliban being overthrown, their grip is back on the country and it’s tightening around the freedoms of its citizens.
That restriction is felt hardest by the women of Afghanistan, who overnight have been sent from the streets, been told that they can no longer play sport or earn a living and should return to their homes.
It’s from a similarly oppressive environment that Popal, the founding mother of Afghanistan women’s football, originally gave birth to the sport and set about a life of campaigning that eventually forced her to leave the country due to threats to both her and her family in 2012.
Describing herself as a “tomboy” in her youth, she was still able to play football in the streets with her brothers but as soon as puberty hit, it was no longer possible for her to hide. And, despite the increasing pressure of her community not to, she had no desire to be hidden away.
“At that time, it was not safe,” she explains on Zoom from her home in Denmark. “When I was younger, it was possible to play street football. I had short hair, wearing very boyish clothes and it was very different until I grew up and was more a teenager.
“Everything changed because the community, or the pressure from the society, was too much on myself and my family. They were telling my family that girls should not be outside playing football and playing with the boys.
“There was a lot of pressure, so I chose to take football to schools and that’s how I started campaigning with my mum, when I was between 14 and 15 years old.”
Popal’s mother, a teacher, gave her extra clout in the community and she was eventually able to bring football not only to girls in her own school, but others in the area as the seeds were laid for the first women’s football matches in the country.
Typical of the time, her efforts were met with violent resistance.
“I could not play alone,” Popal continues. “We had our first team in school, but it was behind closed doors, in a garden, surrounded by walls.
“We were then attacked by a group of men from outside who took the ball from us and started insulting us, calling us bad names and trying to tell us that we belong to the kitchen and should not play football.
“That was a waking moment for me. I realised the world around me was so different because I grew up in a family where I had all my rights as a girl or woman, but I didn’t feel it outside. That was the time for me to take this mission and purpose to use football as a tool to stand not just for my rights but for the rights of my sisters in the country.”
She was relentless in her fight, which not only led to Popal helping to form and then captaining the women’s national team, but also to positions as the director of women’s football, the finance director for the Afghanistan Football Federation, and as founder of the Girl Power Organisation that implemented grassroot campaigns all over the country to introduce young girls to the sport.
But as her voice grew louder, the risk also got greater.
“It was so difficult [to leave Afghanistan],” says Popal of her decision to flee Afghanistan nine years ago. “My voice was becoming stronger and louder, and I was standing for my rights and being a natural activist.
“In my speeches and interviews, I was talking a lot about the corruption in industry and the power that had been abused by the men in those different industries and how women had been treated in the country. That was how my voice became a great risk for me because I wouldn’t be silent, and people didn’t like my voice. I became a target and many times I was attacked physically.”
So too was her family, who were displaced as a result, while Popal ended up living as a refugee in a foreign land, not knowing what her future held.
Popal describes that time with a crack in her voice: “I’ve been in different refugee centres, I’ve experienced life as a refugee, as someone without an identity. I’ve experienced life in deep depression, being alone and not knowing where to start or what the future looks like.
“But I didn’t give up because my purpose was so clear for me. I want to be the voice for the voiceless. For women or men who have had their voice taken from them. That was the mission and the purpose that always kept me strong and to not give up. That’s how I continued, even living outside of Afghanistan, working on the development of women’s football in Afghanistan.”
Her mission became headline news all over the world last month as Popal, working alongside the likes of FIFPRO, the global union for professional football players, started working round the clock to ensure the safe extraction of women footballers, activists and judges in Afghanistan.
To date, Popal puts the number at 150 of the people she has successfully managed to help escape the country since the Taliban took power.
She describes it as an exhausting experience.
“We’re still trying to get the remaining players out of Afghanistan. It has been very stressful. When I wake up, I feel like I have not been sleeping. It’s not healthy, but what can I do? I cannot shut down my brain and I cannot stop thinking about all those women stuck under the dark regime of the Taliban.
“All these years, I have not stopped working in women’s football and developing women’s football in my country. I have not stopped a single day and I continue dedicating all my energy into this and, all of a sudden, I read the news that it’s banned again in Afghanistan. You don’t feel like it’s real in 2021, it’s a basic human right.
“I didn’t have time since the government surrendered to think about myself, how I feel about seeing my country in the hands of the enemy. I haven’t thought about all those years of investment and all that work. All I’ve thought about is the freedom, the dreams of the young people wanting to represent their country, and their joy and happiness being taken away from them. It’s so disturbing, it’s so sad.”
What remains in the country, according to Popal, is “a feeling of abandonment” but she has a message of motivation for her compatriots who have bravely protested the Taliban in recent weeks, putting their lives on the line to fight for the rights of everyone in Afghanistan.
“I just want to tell them that you are not alone,” she says passionately. “We are together in this, and we are standing together. We have your back, we are echoing your voice and we are one voice. You are the champions, you are the fighters, you are the real heroes. Just keep fighting, and we will do the same.”
The genesis of all of Popal’s fight is football, and at the core of her incredible journey has been a simple mission in its theory: to provide opportunities for Afghan girls and women to play football and experience what she did when first playing the sport with her three younger brothers.
“Every time I was playing football, I felt freedom,” Popal explains. “I was just by myself, it’s only my world and I don’t think about anything else but the pitch, the game, and the joy.
“That feeling is amazing and I feel it every time I enter the pitch. I want to give that to every woman and girl around the country.”
Popal will be speaking at WFS Europe on 23 September from 09:30 – 10:05 CEST, sharing her incredible story with those in attendance and online.