Under the Taliban rule in the mid 1990s, most Afghan children had no opportunity to play sports. So in the summer of 2004, after the fall of the Taliban, Awista Ayub, who had grown up in Afghanistan, brought eight Afghan girls to the United States for a soccer clinic.
In her newly published book, Kabul Girls Soccer Club, Ayub tells her own story and how these eight girls found the strength in each other, in teamwork, and in themselves, to take risks to obtain the kinds of freedoms that many of us take for granted. Fifteen teams now compete in the Afghanistan Football Federation, with hundreds of girls participating.
Ayub was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. In 1981, at the age of two, her family brought her to the United States where she thrived through organized athletics. She was determined to make a difference in her home country someday, and after September 11, 2001, she was inspired to start the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, an organization dedicated to nurturing Afghan girls through soccer.
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“While the field of sports and development is still relatively young, evidence is growing that sports can play a key role in creating a safe space for women outside of the home and even go so far as to change the role of women in society long-term,” Ayub said. “Sports as an instrument for empowering women and girls in developing countries has engendered increased interest and support within the international development community in recent years.”
Until the Soviet invasion in 1978, Afghanistan’s larger cities, particularly Kabul, were progressive, as men and women had near equal opportunity and access to education and athletics. Throughout the 1970s, Kabul University had co-ed classrooms, and girls’ basketball and volleyball were common throughout the city. Even though men dominated the athletic arena during this time, women’s participation in sports was strong.
“During the next 20-plus years, both genders had limited access to sports,” Ayub said. “Brutal warfare dramatically changed the cultural landscape of the country, which regressed from a veritable ‘age of liberation’ in the 1970s to the age of social repression during the civil war in the early 1990s and under Taliban rule in the mid 1990s. Most Afghan children had no opportunity to play sports much less receive the proper training and coaching necessary for a high level of success in athletics.”
Currently in Afghanistan, sports have become a more acceptable activity for women and girls. Gender-segregated arenas and gymnasiums are a way to ensure that women can play sports in a female-only environment, ensuring the safety of young female athletes. Dedicated women coaches, trainers, and referees for women’s sports events and practices also are a way to respect current cultural traditions.
When boys see girls in a new, action-oriented role, they learn about the strengths and capabilities that girls and women possess.
In Kabul Girls Soccer Club, Ayub writes about one girl, Robina, who after taking up soccer, rediscovers herself:
“Now, after playing soccer seriously for months, Robina is aware of her body in a new way. Before, it was her hands that were necessary to her: to carry water up the mountain to their house, to scrub the floors, or to write out her lessons. But in soccer, they are useless. Now she's discovered her legs, her balance, the speed with which she can run. And her forehead, which she uses to butt the ball.”
“Before soccer, her legs and feet simply got her places, or kicked at rubbish or stones in her way. Now she knows each part of her foot intimately, the way it curves on one side, perfectly contoured to the side of the ball. She knows the strength of the broad, smooth sweep leading up to her ankles, and the dense, solid circle of her heel, perfect for pivoting.”
Ayub believes that girls’ athletics can also change the perception that men and boys may have of appropriate roles for women in Afghan society. When boys see girls in a new, action-oriented role, they learn about the strengths and capabilities that girls and women possess.
A portion of the books sales of Kabul Girls Soccer Club will be donated to the non-profit organization Women Win, which supports the empowerment of girls and women worldwide through sport. Awista was a Featured Commentator in the Gamechangers: Change the Game for Women in Sport competition.
Read The Evolving Role of Afghan Female Athletes published in by the Middle East Institute in Summer 2010