by Natasha Raheel
A month after the Taliban swept back into power, members of Afghanistan’s national women’s football team have fled across the border into Pakistan. But this is hardly the destination they had set out for. Dislodged from their homes after laboriously navigating a way out from the new regime, the athletes are now hunting for another place as they seek political asylum in third countries.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry took to his official Twitter handle after the arrival of the team and said: “We welcome Afghanistan Women football team they arrived at Torkham Border from Afghanistan. The players were in possession of valid Afghanistan Passport, Pakistan visa and were received by Nouman Nadeem of the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF).”
Officials greeted them with garlands of flowers as they stepped off a bus in Lahore on Wednesday. The footballers were issued emergency humanitarian visas following the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
However, what remains missing in the official accounts are the internal torments and mental status of women who now face an uncertain new reality.
The PFF press release, in its desperate, want to glorify the officials, ended up breaching the privacy of the footballers by bombarding them with excessive media attention, and putting their safety at risk.
It is feared that the family members of these women back home may face consequences. By letting the press take their pictures, the PFF has seriously compromised the safety of the players who have come to Pakistan to find some respite from the atrocities in their homeland.
The media statements from the federation have lauded Sardar Naveed Haider, an ambassador of global development NGO Football for Peace.
“They will be traveling and staying in Lahore till they proceed further,” said PFF vice president Amir Dogar.
But according to a reliable official from the Afghanistan team, Rokit Foundation, a UK-based organisation, has been bearing the expenses and paying the PFF to host the players.
“All media was there to cover the event. You know they can’t be stopped no matter what we say,” a PFF official stated back when asked why the lives of the players were being endangered.
Hope crippled by fear
“Their houses have been burned down and some of their family members have been physically abused, abducted, and harassed by the Taliban,” Khalida Popal, former captain of the women’s football team, told The Express Tribune over the phone. Her new goal is to find the women a safe place.
Khalida says that the girls, perpetually in a transient state and running away from their own homeland, are carrying deep-seated traumas and although they are hopeful, they are also wary of what lies ahead.
Khalida, who led the evacuation of the athletes, said she is also seeking help from Australia as Pakistan only serves as a temporary home, adding that she and her allies have nearly used every option they had.
The political unrest, particularly following the fall of Kabul on August 15, and everything that led up to that point has been a traumatic experience for women and children.
When the group last ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, girls were not allowed to attend school and women were banned from work and education. Women were barred from sports.
A Taliban government official has told the Australian media outlet that they do not consider women’s sports to be necessary or appropriate, which has been an alarming statement in itself. Several accounts allege that the Taliban had used football stadiums for public executions.
Khalida and her team have urged their friends and fellow athletes to burn their national jerseys and gear in order to protect their identities and ward off any attempt by the Taliban to track them down.
“I am grateful to the sports fraternity and others who came to our rescue. I had been sending emails and asking for help to evacuate the girls, an organisation based in the UK came to our help and facilitated this temporary stay for us in Pakistan,” Khalida said.
“The safety of the players is very important and is part of our teamwork,” she said.
The responsibility now lies with Pakistani authorities and the PFF for the consequence of this callous behaviour.