A heartwarming tale of womens football in Afghanistan.

“I hate helicopters,” says Khalida Popal, and I am already smitten.  When I think back, I realized that it is probably her accent that caught me so off-guard. It is alluring in its very middle-eastern nature, which makes it sound at the same time so out of place and yet so familiar on this lovely January day in Dhaka.   I count my blessings. Up until now, interviewing football players, male or female, had often been an odious task, and one that no one really wanted to get stuck with. But with that one simple throaty phrase, Khalida Popal changes all that. It helped too that she was striking; slim, olive-skinned and with pixie-like features that were accentuated by her wide, expressive, kohl-lined eyes. Her voice is husky, deep, rich and it only adds to her overall appeal. And if possible, somehow the topic of helicopters, when it comes up, makes her voice deeper still, yet unwavering.  Clearly this is something she feels very strongly about.

“They are flying overhead all the time,” she continues, “and three to four times a day, they make landings.” “The…”she gestures with her hand, imitating the spinning motion of the rotor blades.  “…Rotor blades?” I dutifully venture.  “Yes-s!” she says immediately, her eyes lighting up at having located the English phrase she had been searching desperately for.  “The rotor blades,” she repeats, only in her wonderfully middle-eastern accent, with the vowels drawn out that bit longer, it sounds much better.  “The awful noise,” she says, “…it is absolutely terrible.”

She gestures by putting her hands over her ears, trying to force home the point that the noise really is unbearable. Outside, cars honk and buses blare. I have always felt that a city cannot really get much louder than it is here in Dhaka.  But, honestly, what do I know? My football ritual does not involve playing at a NATO airbase in Afghanistan.  This is what Khalida Popal does three times a week.

It is hard to believe that the petite woman sitting in front of me is a trail-blazer, almost a revolutionary. She looks much younger than her 23 years, but her eyes; her dark eyes give her away. They tell of a different story; a story of war, displacement, breaking barriers and love. Of course love. What epic is ever complete without it? But this love story is slightly different.

This story is about the love for the beautiful game.  Football fans are quick on hyperbole. Too often they use maxims like Bill Shankly’s “some say football is a game of life and death; I say it is more than that.”But if ever all those axioms held true, almost literally, it is in the case of Khalida Popal and her band of brave Afghan women footballers.

That story too begins with helicopters.  “I hate helicopters,” repeats Khalida, “but where else would be play?” Open fields, I suggest somewhat naively.  Khalida waves her hands, almost dismissively. “We would be attacked if we play anywhere else in public. Wherever we are, people are always saying to us: ‘Football? Why are you playing football? This is not a woman’s game.’ ”And what do you say to them, I enquire?  “What to say,” says Popal. “We give our answers on the field. This is how I fight. How we fight. For us playing football is about so much more. We want to send a message to the world; women in Afghanistan can play sport, study and work at the same time. We are not all that different.”  But until recently they were.

Sport for women was completely banned during the Taliban era and even after the fall of the radical Islamists, women’s sport has been played only in fits and starts. Although there is some support from the government (President Hamid Karzai personally intervened to allocate the NATO airbase field for the women’s team), society still has a hard time grasping that women should be allowed to play. Even the families of players are upset that playing football would lead to ‘a display of flesh’ which would equate to almost a social crime.  Khalida too has been subject to much scrutiny for her role in promoting women’s football in Afghanistan.  “The people started to get more ferocious once they saw me on TV giving some interviews. I was often warned on the street and told not to play football or else I would suffer the consequences. 

“But I did not let it get to me, because I have fought the toughest battle of them all: convincing my family,” says Khalida with a cheeky smile. Was that difficult, I enquire?  She thinks for a while, no doubt searching again for the English phrase. She finds it in time.  “I wore them down,” she says with a sigh. I find out later that it is a huge understatement.

Before the Taliban years, Khalida’s family was quite well off and educated. But when the dark days ascended her father initially thought that they would be able to ride out the troubled times. It proved futile and they soon realized that their progressive lifestyle would come in for severe scrutiny by a regime which was quick to discipline anyone who stood out.  “Under the Taliban, women were almost a second class citizen. I was told that I could not go to school. I cried and cried. The only thing I wanted to do was to give my exams.”  Khalida’s hell, thankfully did not last long.  

“Late one night my father came to us and told us that we would have to leave tonight. In one day I left behind my entire childhood as our family fled to Peshawar. I left behind my books, my clothes, my memories…”  But she remembered to take her football, a sport she was already infatuated with.   “I returned to Kabul after the fall of Taliban and I continued my studies in one of girls’ high schools where most of my classmates played football and encouraged me to join.” That was the start of a tumultuous period in her life.  “My parents and family were dead against me playing football. My father warned me that the family would face ridicule and that he would not stand for it. Worse still, there were many factions out there that could still harm us.  “The only person who supported me was my mother,” says Khalida.  It came to a point where it became almost a Mexican stand-off; her father continually stating that she could not play and Khalida stoically suggesting that she would.  Something had to give.   “I tried to kill myself,” says Khalida burying her face in her hands. There is a wide, sheepish smile on her face; the smile of a person who knows that she did something stupid.  I am slightly alarmed. But within minutes I realize that had it not been for such acts of desperation, I would probably not have been sitting there speaking to her.   “I took a lot of sleeping pills,” she says still avoiding my gaze but smiling relentlessly to somehow make up for what she realizes was a foolish thing to do.  Luckily though it wasn’t enough and Khalida did not wake up swimming gloriously in the afterlife but in a hospital room smelling overpoweringly of disinfectant.   “The first person I saw was my father. He said: ‘if this means so much to you, then you can go ahead and play your football.’ ”  “I could not love him any more than I did at that point.” And so Khalida played the beautiful game.  She registered as a football player in her school football club and when word got around of a female football national team she tried out. “Luckily I was selected by the Afghanistan Football Federation,” says Khalida.

On the pitch, Khalida is a defender, but off it her role is largely contrary. She is continually attacking set prejudices and recently enrolled in university to study financial management. And she does not only play out on the pitch. She is also the head of admin and finance in the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) and is also the head of the women’s football committee.  These are numerous roles but Khalida is happy to fill them all, for now.

“In Afghanistan we really do not have anything, so to keep my mind away from the war and the societal problems, working in football is a pleasant distraction.”

“We have no facilities, but we are happy and proud that the sport is developing rapidly.”

It is also ringing a few of the right bells. Late last year President Karzai invited the whole women’s team and asked them to name what they wanted. Even with seemingly limitless possibilities, the answer was unanimous, and Khalida swears, not choreographed; a football field where they would be able to play unabated.

This tour to Dhaka was one of the first for the women’s team and they also played their first international matches in the tournament held in the beach city of Cox’s Bazar. The results were hardly encouraging but for now Khalida and her teammates are happy to just compete.  After all this was something that, until too long ago, they could not take for granted.

Khalida has come a long way from the woe-begotten child who cried at not being able to go to school but still remembered to take her football along as her family fled probable death. Those were hard times but playing football says Khalida has helped her ‘rediscover her youth.’

Now she can also watch the game in peace, she says stating that there was no player in the world she liked more than Kaka. Brigit Printz too is an influence, ‘very strong’ she says.

I smile and say that it really is slightly ironic that just as the war for peace comes to an end, the war for acceptance is just starting.  Khalida jumps on my statement immediately.  “Yes,” she says, “Yes! This is a war. No guns, but yeah, we are still fighting. Fighting to play football.” 

The message is clear. Bill Shankly would understand. Football really is about more than life and death.  

You can read more from Quazi here and on Twitter @nondeplume.