NOTince teams, fans and sponsors left Qatar, Fifa is looking ahead to the Women’s World Cup in Australia next July. World football’s governing body is hoping for a smoother event, where people can watch the games and “have a moment where we don’t have to think about it”, as its president Gianni Infantino said, referring to the outcry over human rights abuses. and player protests in Doha.
Perhaps that is why Fifa has so far ignored calls from the Afghan women’s national team to officially recognize its players. Since August 2021, the athletes and coaches have been living as refugees after a harrowing escape from their country, where they feared they would be arrested or killed as members of a well-known women’s team in Afghanistan.
They were right to be afraid. The Taliban quickly banned women and girls from playing sports and, weeks after taking power, reportedly beheaded a member of the national volleyball team. Last month, they banned women from all gyms and parks, even those designated as single-sex spaces.
The Taliban’s war on women goes beyond sports and entertainment. They banned teenage girls from school for over a year and less than two weeks ago expelled women from all universities in the country. A few days later, they decreed that women were not allowed to work in local and international humanitarian organizations.
While the Taliban erase women from public life, the players of the Afghan women’s football team remain symbols of courage and resistance for their country. Most of the team members now live in Australia, where they are training for an uncertain future. After losing their homes, livelihoods and many friends and relatives, the women are determined to keep their team together.
The trauma of their flight from Afghanistan and the struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar country, learn a new language and find a job weighs on them. Players experienced recurring nightmares, trouble sleeping, and depression. On the pitch, however, they smile, shout and celebrate every goal with mad enthusiasm.
Although they missed the qualifying rounds for next year’s World Cup, the team hope to continue developing their skills and one day play alongside the best in the world again. Above all, they want to give hope to the women and girls who live under the oppressive and patriarchal regime of Afghanistan.
But without official recognition from Fifa, the team cannot represent its country, compete in professional matches or receive the funding it needs to support its players and staff. Despite filing several reports with Fifa detailing breaches of the organization’s code of ethics and citing rules that should allow women to play in exile, they have received no response.
For a year, human rights defenders have been calling on world leaders to refuse to negotiate with the Taliban or recognize their government until they end their discrimination against women and allow girls to return to school; many countries have accepted these conditions. Aid groups have been working in Afghanistan to support starving families amid a massive humanitarian crisis and economic collapse. People around the world have helped evacuate at-risk Afghans and opened their homes to refugees.
Now, FIFA must use its power to also send a message to the Taliban: women have their place at work, in the classroom and on the football field. Afghan women footballers love their sport and their country. They know what it means to Afghan girls and women living under Taliban oppression to see them in their kits, representing their home. They understand the diplomatic power of sport; that organizations like Fifa can act as a brake on discrimination against women and champion equality for female athletes.
The FIFA Code of Ethics prohibits discrimination based on gender; its statutes proclaim that the organization must “strive to promote the protection” of human rights. If it wants to set the record straight, FIFA can start by recognizing the Afghan women’s national team.
Khalida Popal is the founder and former coach of the Afghanistan women’s national football team. Malala Yousafzai is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.