KABUL — Inside the Afghan capital's soccer federation stadium, dozens of Afghan women, some of them recently returned from a training camp in Japan, are practicing their skills.
"From 2006 up to now, the Afghan women's national soccer team has conducted several different trips abroad, for training and matches," says Zohra Mihree, chief of the Afghan women's soccer committee. "The team participated in SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) tournaments in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Our team came in third place in 2014."
Currently, more than 100 women soccer players are training in different clubs around Afghanistan, up from just a handful a few years ago. Rahima, 18, has been playing for two years now. She always dreamed of joining the national team — and now she is actually doing it.
"When I saw other soccer players on TV I hoped I could be like them one day," she says. "Then I found out Afghanistan had a women's soccer team and was looking for recruits, so I joined. I hope one day I can be the best female soccer player in Afghanistan."
Going against the grain
In a conservative country like Afghanistan, it is not easy for women to play soccer. Many female players have stories of being criticized and even threatened for daring to play a sport.
"When I started playing soccer in 2007 I faced lots of social difficulties. Even when I traveled for training or matches abroad my family kept my travel secret from our relatives," says University student Khatol Dawer, 23, a former player and now trainer. "Sometimes I also received phone calls, people threatening me, saying that if I continued playing they would target me with an explosion and kill me."
But Asadullah, a male player in the local league Kabul, is very supportive of women players like Khatol. "I am very happy to hear about these women who are interested in doing sport, especially soccer," he says. "I don't agree that women should only be at home, doing housework. Women playing sport is happening not just in Afghanistan, but also other Islamic countries. It is very good that women here have the chance as well."
Officials from the Afghan women's soccer federation say that despite the problems, they have made huge strides in the past three years. "Fortunately women's enthusiasm for soccer has really increased," says Shayista Sidiqee, head of the women's soccer referee association. "Before we could hardly find a woman to recruit to the team. Due to social problems and threats most of the women and girls were not willing to join us. But now they come on their own."
Other barriers remain. Most female players, for example, stop playing once they get married — with some exceptions. Player Massoma Muhammadi worked to convince her husband, who eventually came around to the idea.
"When I got engaged my spouse knew that I was a soccer player," she recalls. "He told me I could keep playing up to the point that we got married. Then after our marriage, when he found out how much I love playing soccer, I convinced him, and he let me continue."
Marina Aslamzada, the captain of the Afghan national women's team, says she is working hard to promote the sport across the country. A key step is to open soccer clubs for women in provinces all over Afghanistan. "We have clubs for those who want to join us. And when they learn skills, then they can play in the women's soccer league," she says. "From that league we select the best players for the national team."