Afghan Women, Eager to Play, Are Relegated to the Sidelines

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Women’s sports programs in Afghanistan, long a favorite of Western donors, have all but collapsed.

Some consist of little more than a young woman with a business card and a desk, as one insider described the women’s version of cricket, Afghanistan’s most popular game. Others, like women’s soccer, have managed to field a few teams for practices and training sessions but have not played an international match in years.

Even the relatively few encouraging stories, like women’s taekwondo, one of the sports that may see an Afghan woman sent to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, are at best qualified successes. Afghanistan’s strongest hope for a female taekwondo medalist, Somaya Ghulami, 23, actually lives in Iran and commutes to practice sessions here. She said she would never be able to compete if she had to live in her own country.

It is a conspicuous failure for Western efforts to improve the lives of Afghan women. With few exceptions, the sports programs have become riddled with corruption and been undermined by conservative Afghans who have never liked the idea of young women on sports fields.

From left, Diana Barakzai, the former captain of the Afghan women’s cricket team, and former team members, Rumina Barakzai, 17, and Zarpana Hashimi, 22, in Kabul last month. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

One of the main supporters of women’s sports in Afghanistan is the American government, which spends $1.5 million a year on coeducational sports programs — not counting a $450,000 cricket grant that officials took back when they realized no women’s cricket was being played. American officials, however, declined to discuss women’s sports on the record.

While all women’s sports here are suffering, none have failed quite as spectacularly as the women’s national cycling team. Celebrated in documentaries, and the subject of a 2014 book and a blizzard of news articles, the team was recently nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — thanks to the tireless promotion of its benefactor, Shannon Galpin, who financed the team through her Colorado-based charity, Mountain to Mountain.

However, Ms. Galpin announced on her web page last month that she would no longer support the Afghan Cycling Federation because of what she described as “out of control” corruption by the team’s longtime coach and the head of the federation, Haji Abdul Sediq Seddiqi.

 

Ms. Galpin was upset that sponsors’ gifts, including more than 40 bicycles and other racing gear, valued at more than $100,000, were stolen after being handed over by her organization to the team and Mr. Seddiqi.

Somaya Ghulami, left, a member of Afghanistan’s women’s taekwondo team, stretching before a training session. She lives in Iran and commutes to practices in Kabul. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Mr. Seddiqi was recently dismissed from his post as both coach and head of the federation by the president of the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee, Mohammad Zaher Aghbar, who cited something besides corruption. He claimed that Mr. Seddiqi had successively married and divorced three of the young women on his team. “He has married three of them — three times — and the girls were all complaining about him,” Mr. Aghbar said.

In an interview, Mr. Seddiqi denied the corruption charges, claimed Ms. Galpin’s organization was still financing the cycling federation and called the accusations against him “a lot of made-up crap.” Mr. Seddiqi, 62, acknowledged that he had three prior divorces and was now married to a 25-year-old woman, but denied that his current or past wives were ever team members.

One national cycling champion (Mr. Seddiqi also controlled the men’s team), Hashmat Barakzai, who recently fled to Germany to claim asylum, said that “Seddiqi used the women’s team as his personal piggy bank and love playground.”

Mr. Seddiqi’s critics said training was almost nonexistent. “He would take them out to a roundabout on the highway and ride around in circles,” Ms. Galpin said.

Ms. Ghulami taking a break from training at a gym in Kabul. She is Afghanistan’s strongest hope for a female medalist in taekwondo at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times “Under coach,” Ms. Galpin said, referring to Mr. Seddiqi, “it’s zero female empowerment.”

 

Corruption in other women’s sports might not be quite as brazen, but it remains a huge problem. Diana Barakzai, who played for Afghanistan’s women’s cricket team when it was actually functioning, in 2009, said she was approached recently by the Afghanistan Cricket Board about heading up a women’s team.

“They told me they already made a deal with someone to pay them $180,000 for the job, but if you’re willing to pay $200,000 you can have it,” she said, adding that she turned the offer down.

Ms. Barakzai, who is not related to Mr. Barakzai, said she was surprised by the demand, since she assumed there was no money to be made in women’s cricket. Besides, the national team had not competed — or even practiced — in at least three years.

But it turned out that the United States Embassy had awarded a grant of $450,000 last summer to promote women’s cricket and had sent it to Lapis Communications, a private organization, to administer. Those funds have now been returned to the American Embassy, said a Lapis official, Sarah-Jean Cunningham. “This program did not get the traction it needed to justify pushing forward,” she said.

hafiq Stanikzai, the chief executive officer of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, denied Ms. Barakzai’s accusations. “That’s totally a false claim that she made and a very stupid one,” he said.

Mr. Stanikzai said that there was a national women’s cricket program but that it was operating in secret. “We are not publicizing that due to certain limitations,” he said. “The national team is functioning but at a very basic level, as they are not good enough to compete at an international level.”

But Peter Anderson, an Australian cricket coach who was brought to Afghanistan several years ago to train its women’s cricket team, said the cricket board was so against women participating that it had dismantled what women’s team there was. He said he quit after being shunted to coaching the disabled team.

Tuba Sangar is the current head of women’s cricket — the person Mr. Anderson described as “a girl in an office with a business card.” When contacted, she said she was not allowed to comment.

Members of the adult and under 17 women’s soccer teams training in Kabul on March 13. The women’s soccer team, often held up as as an example of success, has not played internationally since 2014.CreditAdam Ferguson for The New York Times

Robina Jalali was on the first women’s team to compete in 2004 in the Olympics for Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled. A runner, she was one of two at the 2004 Games. Now the head of women’s sports at the National Olympic Committee, she says that even the foreign embassies are no longer paying much attention.

“The main problem is the growing insecurity we have; secondly, violence against women, which is growing. Women are not feeling safe to train,” she said. “Now we see the youth are just running away from the country, which has changed the mentality of the embassies,” she continued. “They feel they can’t give a girl a visa to compete because she’s not going to come back.”

But the women’s soccer team, often held up as an example of success, has not played internationally since 2014. There are plans to do so sometime this year, yet neither the date nor the country where it will take place has been set, said Khatool Shahzad, an official with the soccer federation.

 Shamila Kohestani is a women’s soccer success story, going from captain of the women’s team in 2007 to a scholarship at Drew University in New Jersey. Her dream had been to return here as a coach, but after a recent visit to Kabul she decided not to.

Ms. Kohestani thinks that Afghan officials never really supported the idea of women in sports, saying they only feigned interest because women’s sports were such grant magnets. “They would say, ‘I would never let my daughter do that,’” she said. “They treated us like sluts or something because we’re running around showing ourselves to men.”

The women’s soccer team still exists, mainly because the players are encouraged to participate by what for Afghanistan are generous cash payments: $100 a month for national team members and $50 for junior team members.

Despite that incentive, only 10 national team members out of 22 (the women play 11-a-side soccer) came out for a recent two-hour practice; their coach, a man, did not show up at all.

The team captain, Forozan Tajali, 22, took over the training session. She said security concerns, family pressure and public harassment were not the only difficulties the soccer players faced. The national team has lost more members to marriage than anything else, she said, because Afghan women are considered too old to wed after their early 20s, and their husbands typically refuse to allow them to play.

Taekwondo has been similarly hurt, Ms. Ghulami said during a recent training session here, adding, “Fortunately, I have a liberal family that does support me — and we live in Iran.”


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