Published in Women's Fightback 26, Autumn/Winter 2021
Kelly Lindsey, former head coach of the Afghanistan women’s football team – and before that, US international player – spoke to supporters before Lewes FC women’s home friendly against West Ham on 22 August. She has been working to secure safe evacuation of footballing women and girls from Afghanistan, along with the director of women’s football, a human rights lawyer and FIFPRO (the international professional footballers’ federation, their trade union body). “For seven days straight we’ve created a team in the US, a team in Australia, a team in Europe, we have passed the baton all day and all night to try to keep the process going and try to keep the pressure on and try to keep pushing the government and try to keep pushing sports organisations.“
Kelly spoke having just heard that some of the girls had been picked up by the Taliban twenty minutes earlier. She explained how they are now operating: “The Taliban have been in the Afghan government for the last twenty years. They’ve been running ministries, so they have lists of everyone who has been working in the government.
“The Taliban are literally going to houses, literally knocking on doors. One of our families: both the parents were executed, the house was burned down and the girls and one younger brother got out. They were a five-hour drive from Kabul, and they walked from that city to Kabul to try to get onto our transport, because that’s the only way to get out. It’s desperation – they will do anything to escape. But we won’t get everyone out. We have girls in different parts of the country who cannot make it through to Kabul. And we will have to leave them behind, it’s gut-wrenching for everyone.”
Women and girls playing football has been part of the progressive expansion of women’s activity and rights in Afghanistan following the defeat of the Taliban two decades ago. The return of Taliban rule, following the USA and its allies’ ending of their failed military occupation, threatens to undo that progress. Kelly explains that, “When I first got with the team, I asked them why they wanted to play: What is it going to mean to you? What is your purpose in coming together to form this national team? Their first words were: to break the grip of the Taliban, to show women in their country that they could come out of their homes. That was really shocking to me because I didn’t really believe that statement about coming out of their homes – but that is truly what the Taliban do. They will lock these women back in their homes, they have already stopped women from working, they’ve taken education away.
“They can say that they are going to have women’s rights within sharia law, they’re going to give women education, but that’s not in our sense of giving women rights and giving women education. Everything will be taken from them, everything that they have worked for. These athletes tried to inspire other women to step out of their homes, go get their education, be the future, create the democracy that they all want, and now they will be the ones who will be persecuted.
“For the status that these athletes have in the country, they are already being targeted. The Taliban have been in their homes, they’ve already been moving from house to house, living in the streets. We’ve been pushing and pushing for sports to create equality and empowerment and raise them up and we’ve done an amazing job. We’re raising women up in a desperately unsecure country, so for us – for the Americans – to just pull the rug out and walk away, it’s just so … I can’t even put it into words. Every government official we talk to is disgusted by the situation, that we’ve left so many people behind.”
Her frustration with government inaction was clear, as Kelly talked about “pleading” with the governments of the UK, US, Canada, Belgium, Germany and others. “Everyone says ‘Yeah, yeah, we want to help’, but nobody takes action. That’s the killer part right now. You don’t have a month to get on it – we’re in a tight period, the US says they have to get out by 31 August.”
Australia has taken some action, but only under pressure from former athletes, many of whom have become lawyers. “The Australian government and sports organisations have come together in the last 48 hours, they’ve worked through the night for three days straight filing the applications for six hundred people.”
Kelly is just as frustrated with the sports governing bodies. “We have these huge, global organisations. We’ve just had a huge Olympics, now the Paralympics. We have two Paralympians in Afghanistan. They have all the money in the world to do this, and yet they are not really doing anything. Why are the world sports governing bodies, which have the capacity, the power, the connections to the government and the money – why are they not stepping up? Why are we using sport for good, but when we really need it, when we say we are a family, when we say we’re going to stand together, we don’t do anything? Why are the big organisations not coming to the aid of these girls, of these athletes?
“Even the group that we have working on the evacuation, we are working as private individuals. These sports organisations can do more than we can, in a quick amount of time. They can make sure that people can leave the country, get them settled. If you are an athlete, there is nothing better than to know you have a team and a community around you. They need people around them, to help them resettle, to help them have a future and a life.
“We had a huge sexual abuse case that we had to deal with a few years ago, and once again, it took eight months of us as individuals begging and pleading to FIFA and other organisations before it was addressed. They always say ‘Oh, it’s just Afghanistan.’ I can’t stand those words. It’s not just Afghanistan, these are human beings, human lives, futures. The global community has created this situation for them – not intentionally, not out of harm, but as we push equality, as we push women’s rights, human rights, we have created this huge struggle for them.”
She explained the urgent action being taken to help female footballers escape: “The girls who are over eighteen have to go alone. For under-18s, we file applications for family members as well. We’ve had to keep it quite tight, immediate family only – younger siblings, maybe parents – not the extended family. When they get called into the airport, they will have to say goodbye to their families, maybe for the last time. Their families are all with them, hoping that when the gates open and they are allowed in that maybe they will take somebody else, but it’s going to be the most heart-breaking moment for these young players, young women.”
The efforts of individuals in the face of governments’ inaction means that Kelly rated the chances of getting the footballers visas and getting them out as “fifty-fifty”. She explained that, “Everything is about the documents, and so many women in Afghanistan don’t have an ID card, don’t have a passport, don’t have the documentation. Elite athletes have documentation because they travel, but they don’t have it in their hands because the federations hold on to it. They have an application which means they can get in the airport, that’s helping them get on a flight, that doesn’t mean they will get a visa. We might have to start pushing that some come to the UK, some go to Canada, some go to Germany, and start splitting and breaking them up. But the key is evacuation, and that was the first key of the strategy, to try to get them in that airport.”
Follow the footballers:
@shabnammobarez Shabnam Mobarez, Captain of Afghanistan Women’s National Team
@khalida_popal Khalida Popal, Director of Afghanistan Women’s National Team
@AfghanistanWnt Afghanistan Women’s National Team
@nadi9nadim Nadia Nadim, probably the best and most influential Afghan woman player, who fled Afghanistan with her family after her father was executed by the Taliban in 2000. Plays for the Denmark national team.