Afghan girls rebuild traditional sports into pathway to future

Written by By Hinda Soweto, CNN Staff

Five years ago, an impoverished 17-year-old Afghan girl named Gulnaz decided to kick a soccer ball with some friends around the wall of her village.

She asked them to play the sport with her so she could make a few pounds to help her parents pay for the clothes she desperately needed.

They agreed, and soon Gulnaz and her pals had a flourishing sideline: sewing T-shirts for the Afghan national soccer team, as the team struggled to defend their World Cup hopes following the Taliban’s ascension to power in late 2001.

As the Taliban returned power in 2004 and Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar called for only men to watch soccer matches, Gulnaz and her teammates decided it was time to leave the sport behind.

But over the next five years, Gulnaz — who preferred not to reveal her last name — kept in touch with her old teammates, and she was glad they had not given up the sport they had loved for so long.

“It was a new thing for girls to play soccer, especially in a conservative area like Afghanistan, so I could feel proud that other girls were doing that. It made me feel really happy,” she says, recalling when she was playing when the Taliban first seized control.

This is the Taliban in control of Afghanistan five years after the beginning of the conflict. CNN’s and photographer’s 2006 coverage of the start of the conflict and conflict in Afghanistan.

Rise of social media

Although the Taliban banned girls from attending school and forced women to stay at home, Gulnaz says she was lucky to attend school through the end of 2001, and her teammates included girls who went on to studies at a girls’ high school in Kabul.

“Girls were not allowed to attend school for five years. It was horrible when the Taliban rule was over, and girls couldn’t even go to school anymore, so this new generation has a chance to have a bright future,” she says.

But for most of the fighting that followed the Taliban’s fall, Gulnaz says she and her teammates were too busy with work and educating themselves and their families to pay too much attention to news.

“After the fall of the Taliban, I didn’t see much violence,” she says. “There were just a few attacks, like the one in Kabul. Mostly, this war was against the Taliban. After 2003, the war spread out from Afghanistan, so I did not know much about the war until the 2009 bombing of the hotel in the city.”

With so much at stake and Afghanistan, a country not known for being a hospitable place for visitors, at a high risk of a civil war, things did not appear to be looking up.

As a result, the girls thought about quitting soccer altogether.

“We thought, ‘Why are we going back there? It is so dangerous,’” Gulnaz says.

Footballing ‘funk’

But she was still convinced that her teammates were the key to a bright future.

And then things got even more complicated.

The Afghanistan Football Federation was bombed in the weeks before Gulnaz left for South Africa in December 2010, and she could not travel with her team.

“I kept thinking: ‘If my friends can’t travel, can I go? Is there hope now?’ ” she recalls.

Despite the threat of a civil war, the girls vowed to continue playing, even when Gulnaz worried that the time was too late.

She was adamant the young Afghan women could make a difference.

“I was scared of violence at the time, but these girls are so intelligent,” she says. “The girls were always smarter than I was. Sometimes I felt like they would just go, but then I would say, ‘Please, be careful,’ and they would end up being seriously injured.”

But now the group has won three Olympic qualifying matches and are set to go to next year’s World Cup in France. The women have proven they can make a difference with the power of football.

“It is a really good achievement, and they should be proud of themselves,” Gulnaz says.

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