Afghanistan women’s cricket team: Players hiding in Kabul fear Taliban rule

Asel and many of her international team-mates are in hiding. Asel isn’t her real name. In Kabul members of the Taliban have already come looking for Afghanistan’s women’s cricket team.

“Every woman playing cricket or other sports is not safe right now,” she says. “The situation is very bad in Kabul.

“We have a group on WhatsApp and every night we are talking about our problems and sharing plans about what we should do. We are all hopeless.”

Asel has barely stepped outside her home since the Taliban entered Kabul in mid-August and has locked her cricket kit away. She explains how one of her team-mates was targeted in the city.

“The village where they play cricket, some people who knew them are working with the Taliban. When the Taliban came here and took Kabul they threatened them, saying, ‘We may come and kill you if you try to play cricket again,'” Asel says.

Taqwa, who is also using a pseudonym, was involved in Afghan women’s cricket for many years. She managed to flee the country after Kabul fell. In the week before she got out, she moved from house to house to avoid being detected. The Taliban called her father, but he said he had not been in contact with her.

“I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened,” she says. “When the Taliban came to Kabul, for a week I didn’t eat anything, I didn’t sleep.

“I was not only thinking about myself, I was worrying about my girls. They are sacrificing their lives, their studies. Some even didn’t get married so they could play for Afghanistan. I’m very worried about their lives.”

For another former player, Hareer, again speaking to the BBC using an assumed name, playing cricket as an Afghan woman meant far more than just taking wickets and scoring runs.

“When I play I feel like a strong woman,” she says. “I feel confident and I feel proud of myself.

“I can imagine myself as a woman who can do anything, who can make her dreams come true.”

But for Hareer and the rest of the Afghanistan women’s cricket team, those dreams may well have come to an end.

When just under a year ago there seemed to be so much hope, now they fear for their safety and feel abandoned by the sporting authorities they believe can help.

The rise of cricket had seemed something of a fairy tale in Afghanistan. The country was only granted affiliate membership by the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001, just a year after the Taliban lifted a ban on the sport. When the Taliban was overthrown soon after, cricket began to flourish, along with other sports like football.

“If we look into the last 20 years, we had war, suicide attacks, we had so many problems, but the only occasion when the entire nation was happy, they were emotionally involved… was during sport,” Emal Pasarly, editor of BBC Pashto, told The Sports Desk podcast in August.

“Only sport gave a time or a place where people were happy and they could forget about the rest of what was going on around them.”

Cricket fanaticism in Afghanistan grew throughout the 2000s as the men’s team began a meteoric rise on the world stage. When they qualified for the 2015 World Cup in Australia, street celebrations broke out across the country. In 2017, they were granted Test status. Players such as Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi are now international stars and are adored across the country.

Afghanistan’s first national women’s team was formed in 2010. They faced resistance from the start.

In the early years the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) prevented the women’s team from playing at several international tournaments, saying it received “Taliban threats”.

In 2012 the team did travel for a six-team regional tournament in Tajikistan, and they won it. But two years later they folded. The ACB again blamed the decision on Taliban threats.

Despite the team disbanding, girls and young women continued to play on makeshift wickets across Afghanistan. And the ACB still had a small number of staff responsible for arranging women’s matches.

But the same problems persisted for this new generation of female cricketers.

Hareer says that, within the ACB, many were not supportive and would only arrange matches for the women if they “begged them to do it”. Members of the board would also school women on how to behave when they were out on the pitch, she says.

“I’m a bowler, and when I take a wicket I can’t shout and act like I’m happy because there are men watching me,” she says.

“I have to control my emotions, I can’t shout to support my team-mates, I can’t support them. They say: ‘You shouldn’t celebrate, you shouldn’t shout or strike poses.'”

But as the profile of the men’s team grew, the ACB had to start taking the women’s game more seriously. The ICC requires its 12 full members – Afghanistan became one in 2017 – to have a national women’s team. This led to 25 female cricketers being awarded contracts in November 2020.

Just 10 months ago, a new dawn appeared to be on the horizon for women’s cricket in Afghanistan. That hope appears to have been short lived.

During their previous rule, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban prohibited almost all education for girls and women (girls were not allowed to attend school after the age of 8), while women were unable to work or leave the house without being accompanied by a male relative.

While the Taliban has made attempts to portray a more moderate image this time around, the chances of women being able to partake in sport are slim. The ACB’s chief executive officer, Hamid Shinwari, has said the Taliban have voiced support for the men’s team, who now have approval to play their first ever Test against Australia in Hobart in November. But he told the BBC he expects the women’s team to be stopped. This would violate Afghanistan’s ICC membership.

Afghanistan’s women cricketers are hoping to escape Taliban rule like the 50 female athletes who were evacuated by the Australian government in August. Football’s world governing body Fifa has said it is “negotiating the complex evacuation” of footballers and other athletes from Afghanistan.

A spokeswoman for the ICC said: “We are, as you would expect, in close contact with the Afghanistan Cricket Board and we’re monitoring the situation and have offered our support.”

But Taqwa says the ICC have not been in contact directly with the country’s women cricketers and that the ACB have shown little interest in their welfare.

“The ICC never help us, they always disappoint us. The ICC is talking with those people who are against women’s cricket, like the new ACB chairman,” she adds, in reference to Azizullah Fazli, who was appointed after the Taliban takeover.

Asked if the ACB still supports women’s cricket, Mr Shinwari said: “The future government will decide.”

Despite the situation in which they find themselves, Asel still believes the team could come together again. Hareer comes to life when she talks about her dreams for a better future.

“I want to be an international cricket player,” she says.

“I want to be a strong Afghan woman who can change other people’s lives. I want to be a role model for other Afghan women and girls. I want to change at least a few men’s minds in Afghanistan. I want to be proud of myself and that’s all.”

Asel adds: “In Afghan culture, there are barriers that affect sport for women. They say that women are weak and are not built to play cricket. They have to get married and give birth and work at home and bring up the children. They must take care of their husbands.

“In my family too, some relatives say I cannot play because an Islamic culture will not let a woman play cricket. But I love it.

“The situation is bad for us. But there is hope while we are breathing. If we get taken from the country and taken somewhere else we will start again.

“We will not give up on our dreams, inshallah [if Allah wills it].”