Female Afghan soccer players flee to Pakistan, joining exodus of women and girls

correction

An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the British organization that helped with the evacuation. The Rokit Foundation is responsible. This article has been updated.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Nearly two dozen female soccer players from Afghanistan, including many youth players, have crossed into Pakistan along with their families, joining a growing number of prominent Afghan women and girls fleeing their country amid fears of repression under Taliban rule.

“We welcome Afghanistan Women football team,” Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Pakistan’s information minister, wrote in a message on Twitter early Wednesday, saying that team members had entered Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing using Pakistani visas.

The players include members of the Afghan youth national team as well as a group of teenage girls from a provincial team that won the Afghan Women’s Premier League in 2019, said Khalida Popal, a former captain of Afghanistan’s national women’s soccer team and the founder of a nonprofit organization called Girl Power that empowers girls through sports and education.

Popal, speaking in a telephone interview from Denmark, said she led the effort to help the players escape.

“I knew that they were in great danger,” she said. Popal stated that the Taliban had taken the families and burned the homes of provincial players in Herat province, western Afghanistan.

“There was so much hope for these girls, and then everything was displaced, and they lost everything,” she said.

Popal was also a leader of a group of human rights activists and professional soccer players who worked to help members of the Afghan Women’s National Team leave Afghanistan in the chaotic days after the Taliban first took control of the country. Many fled Kabul on flight. Popal said that it was difficult to arrange safe passage for youth players because they didn’t attract the same attention worldwide as senior teams. He enlisted help from a British non-profit called Rockit Foundation.

“People were interested with the national team, but this time was the toughest, because I had to scream louder and say, ‘I need help,'” Popal said.

When the Taliban last controlled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, the group enforced a radical interpretation of Islamic law that forced women to wear burqas while preventing them from working, attending school or appearing in public without male chaperones. The Taliban have pledged to protect women’s rights since they captured the country, but with the restriction that these rights cannot be in conflict with their views of religion and culture.

In recent weeks, women have held demonstrations in Kabul and other cities to protest gender-based violence as well as their already evaporating role in public life. Many female politicians, activists and athletes have fled Afghanistan or attempted to flee the country, despite the Taliban’s assurances.

In late August, 75 Afghan female soccer players, officials and relatives traveled from Kabul to Australia, the first country to offer to take in the athletes in response to entreaties from a multinational network of athlete advocates and human rights lawyers. Others have been made to evacuate the athletes.

Ashfaq Hussain Shah, president of the Pakistan Football Federation, said the 22 players and their families who crossed into Pakistan early Wednesday had been transported to the city of Lahore — an eight-hour drive. He said that the association expected to welcome more families and players.

Popal said she hoped to find a place for many of the youth players in Australia, where they will eventually be able to play soccer again. Popal said that she was disappointed at how few international sports governing bodies, other players and majors had helped her in helping the fleeing players.

“It shouldn’t be on me,” Popal said. “I’m not the governing bodies of a sport, I’m just one person.”

Fahim reported from Istanbul and Hensley-Clancy from Washington.

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