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'Buried' Dreams: Afghan Runner Challenges Taliban Claim That Uniforms Violate Islamic Norms


A girls cycling team from the province of Bamiyan.

A championship runner in Kabul says the uniforms she and other Afghan sportswomen wore in domestic and international competitions fully covered their bodies and didn’t violate the Islamic hijab norms as the Taliban claims.

The 24-year-old professional athlete, whose name is being withheld for her protection, was responding to a senior Taliban official saying this week that Afghan women won’t be allowed to play “the kind of sports where they get exposed" now that the hard-line Islamist group controls most of the country.

“During both trainings and competitions, we wore head scarves, long-sleeved tops, and long sweatpants, and over the pants we wore a skirt,” said the runner.

She insists she and her teammates always made sure their bodies weren't exposed during either trainings or competitions.

“I’ve never removed my head scarf in any competition, anywhere in the world, and the foreign event organizers never objected. They respected it as our choice,” she told RFE/RL.

The Taliban's head of physical education and sports, Bashir Ahmad Rustamzai, arrives to watch youths performing their skills during an event in Kabul on September 14.
The Taliban's head of physical education and sports, Bashir Ahmad Rustamzai, arrives to watch youths performing their skills during an event in Kabul on September 14.

The Taliban government that was announced earlier this month hasn’t publicly stated its policy on the future of women’s sports.

On September 14, Bashir Ahmad Rustamzai, the country’s new director general for sports, said senior Taliban leaders were still deciding on the matter.

But a deputy head of the Taliban's cultural commission, Ahmadullah Wasiq, recently said Afghan women might not be allowed to play sports because their bodies would show during competitions.

“In cricket and other sports, women will not get an Islamic dress code. It is obvious that they will get exposed and will not follow the dress code, and Islam does not allow that,” Wasiq said.

The comment bespeaks the Taliban's ultraconservative interpretation of Islamic standards of modesty as imposed on women in public or in the presence of men outside the immediate family.

The Kabuli runner, who took up athletics after her father took her to a sports center at the age of 10, says she has “buried” her dreams and has no hope of being allowed to return to sports ever again.

“What I see ahead is darkness," she told RFE/RL on September 15, one month after the UN-backed government's leadership fled as foreign troops withdrew and Taliban fighters marched into the capital. "I’m scared for my safety and the safety of my family. I don’t want to put them in danger by trying to continue my career."

But Wasiq's comment also adds to concerns over the Taliban’s general stance on women’s rights and freedoms in Afghanistan, most of which were sharply curbed during the group's harsh reign in 1996-2001.

Afghanistan's Kimia Yousofi competes in the women's 100m heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30.
Afghanistan's Kimia Yousofi competes in the women's 100m heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 30.

“The Taliban are preventing working women from returning to their regular office jobs, so I don’t think they would allow women taking part in competitions in stadiums in front of crowds,” the runner said.

Despite a lack of modern sports facilities at her club, and disapproving glances from conservative neighbors, the runner said she was happy doing what she and her family liked.

But she hasn’t left her home since the Taliban swept back into power on August 15, two weeks before the last of the U.S.-led evacuation flights took off from Kabul's international airport.

She also worked as a coach, an occupation she had been planning on for her future once she retired from competition.

In her career, she won multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals in domestic competitions. She has also represented Afghanistan in competitions in Iran, Kazakhstan, and other countries.

She and her teammates returned to Kabul from a trip abroad just days before the Western-backed government collapsed and the Taliban entered Kabul.

Asked if she had received any specific threats from the Taliban, the young woman said she feels there is a climate of fear in general for all career women in Afghanistan under the Taliban.

“My photos with my name are hanging there in the Sports and Olympic Committee, where new Taliban officials are sitting right now,” the woman said. “I fear they’ll come after me.”

Dozens of professional Afghan athletes have left the country since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. This week, a group of girls who played for Afghanistan's junior national soccer team crossed the border into Pakistan along with their coaches and family members.

The young athletes had reportedly sent a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, asking him for permission to enter the country. The players claimed that they were under "grave threat" from the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s Cricket Board organized a domestic competition among men’s teams in early September before a packed crowd at Kabul's cricket stadium -- marking the first-ever sports event under Taliban rule.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

     

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