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Can global pressure save women’s sports in Afghanistan?

AREF KARIMI/AFP via Getty Images

The doomed future of women’s sports in Afghanistan may not be as black and white as the Taliban’s deputy head of the cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, initially indicated in comments made earlier this month. Wasiq’s interview with Australian broadcaster SBS was in regard to an upcoming men’s cricket Test match scheduled for late November between Australia and Afghanistan. It would be the first ever Test between the two nations and many wondered if it would continue as planned given Afghanistan’s recent upheaval. As the Taliban take-over culminated, party officials assured Cricket Australia and the Afghanistan Cricket Board that the historic match would not be derailed. Wasiq told SBS that the Taliban wanted “to reassure all our players, the cricket board officials, and colleagues that they can continue their games without any fear or intimidation, and call on their colleagues to come and play with confidence, and to also get prepared for domestic and upcoming international games.”

In the follow up interview that made global headlines, it became clear that when Wasiq said “all our players,” he was strictly referring to male players. 

“I don’t think women will be allowed to play cricket because it is not necessary that women should play cricket. In cricket, they might face a situation where their face and body will not be covered. Islam does not allow women to be seen like this. It is the media era, and there will be photos and videos, and then people watch it. Islam and the Islamic Emirate [Afghanistan] do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sports where they get exposed.”

No one familiar with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam was surprised by these comments. Female athletes have been among the many groups striving to flee the country, with several stating they now fear for their lives. Those who couldn’t get out have been advised by teammates outside the country to erase all evidence of their sporting lives, even to “burn their jerseys.”

Immediately after Wasiq indicated the women’s cricket team would now be banned, people began wondering how national and international cricket organizations would respond. Would Cricket Australia boycott the scheduled test? Would teams pull out of the men’s T20 World Cup scheduled for October if the Afghan team is permitted to enter as planned?

In 2017, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) became a full-fledged member of the International Cricket Council (ICC). One requirement of ICC membership is to create and maintain an active national women’s cricket team. But as of 2018, female cricketers in Afghanistan reported ACB officials had done almost nothing to support a women’s team and didn’t believe women should play. Even if they personally supported the idea of a women’s team, officials claimed they received threats from Taliban members warning against its development. Without providing clarity on what changed, the ACB’s 2020 annual report claims they made good on the ICC requirement and signed the top 25 Afghan female cricketers to professional contracts after holding a series of development camps throughout the country.

If the Taliban bans the nascent women’s cricket team, ACB may lose its ICC membership, which would be a huge blow for the men’s team on the international level. 

An ICC spokesperson told SBS News that the body will discuss the matter at its next board meeting. 

“The ICC has been monitoring the changing situation in Afghanistan and is concerned to note recent media reports that women will no longer be allowed to play cricket. This and the impact it will have on the continued development of the game will be discussed by the ICC Board at its next meeting.”

Whereas the ICC may opt to extend exceptions of its gender equality requirements to Afghanistan, as they previously did when granting ACB full membership status before its women’s team was fully active, Cricket Australia has indicated it will not be similarly generous

“If recent media reports that women’s cricket will not be supported in Afghanistan are substantiated, Cricket Australia would have no alternative but to not host Afghanistan for the proposed Test Match due to be played in Hobart.” 

Women’s cricket has a strong support system and following in Australia. In early 2020, Australia’s women’s team came close to breaking the attendance record for a women’s sporting event at their ICC Women’s T20 World Cup final vs. India, with 86,174 fans watching in person. 

With Australia drawing a hard line in the sand, the leaders of the ACB are now in a highly motivated position to convince the Taliban to permit their women’s program to continue at a level that satisfies global ideals. Interestingly, ACB’s Chairman, Azizullah Fazli, was quick to downplay Wasiq’s harsh statements and to temper concerns over the safety of their female players.

 “The women’s cricket coach, Diana Barakzai, and her players are all safe and living in their home country. Many countries have asked them to leave Afghanistan. But they have not left Afghanistan, and at the moment, they are in their places.” 

He also didn’t waiver in his assuredness that the women’s team would be allowed to persist stating, “We will give you our clear position on how we will allow women to play cricket. Very soon, we will give you good news on how we will proceed.”

It’s hard to adopt Fazli’s optimism, especially considering one of ACB’s two female board members, Hasina Safi, has gone into hiding now that the Taliban dissolved her position as Minister of Women’s Affairs and transformed her office building into a ministry for “the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice.” Fazli’s assurance that ACB’s female cricketers are safe and content to stay in Afghanistan also starkly contradicts reports from the BBC that members of the team have been threatened by the Taliban and are fearing for their lives. 

There is the possibility that the Taliban is fully willing to sacrifice Afghanistan’s standing in men’s international sports in order to adhere to their strict religious beliefs about women’s propriety. But Wasiq also recently backpedaled after the strong reactions to his initial statements, clarifying a few days later that his comments were not an official announcement of Taliban policy. 

“The policies [on women’s sports] might be announced in the future,” Wasiq said. “What I had said in the past was my opinion based on the country’s cultural and security situation.”

The social and political power of sport is on full display as any hope of a future for women’s sports in Taliban-led Afghanistan now hinges on pressure from global sporting authorities and tact from existing Afghan sports federations. The fact that the development and support of women’s teams is a requirement of membership in organizations like the ICC is heartening. The tragedy is that women hold almost zero leadership positions in the parties at the table here. And the stakes could not be higher for women in Afghanistan.