In Afghanistan, women’s football is a place for only liberal and strong women. For many, the establishment of the national team was proof that the partiarchial structures of the country could be overcome. Now, a sex abuse scandal has overshadowed this standard-bearer for women’s rights in the country.
The sport’s global governing body, FIFA, has opened an investigation in to officials of the Afghani football federation (AFF). This follows many players accusing the AFF’s president, Keramuddin Karim, and a number of its coaches of offering the women, many of whom are from deprived backgrounds, financial incentives and a better life in exchange for sex.
The AFF reject the accusations: “I know nothing about it,” Karim told Deutsche Welle. “The matter began in Jordan, where there was a training camp.” There, Afghani international players from Europe and America didn’t wear a hijab. That resulted in anger back home, explained Karim. “We had to justify ourselves to the Ulama (guardians and interpreters of Islam).”
The women’s committee of the association then decided all of the players had to wear a hijab, as stated in sport law. Anyone who wants to play for the national team must sign a form to that effect. But not everyone did – which is why only half the team could play at the Central Asia championships in Uzbekistan, said Karim. “When the team returned from Uzbekistan, it came out that there had been immoral proposals.”
Harassament in the training camp
What Karim is implying is that the players created the assault claims as protest against being forced to wear the hijab. Captain Shabnam Mobarez and predecessor Khalida Popal rubbished this suggestion. “The people in power at the AFF frequently harassed our girls,” Popal told DW. “They were sexually molested.”
Team captain Mobarez said she observed it back in February 2018 in the aforementioned training camp in Jordan. “Once, a girl came out of the room of one of the coaches from Afghanistan very late at night. We asked the girl what she was doing there so late at night. She didn’t want to say. Later, she spoke to my colleague Khalida and told her what happened to more girls.”
Head of association rebuffs blame
The accuastions haven’t only been reported in the western media – headlines are also being made in Afghanistan. According to information from the players, Karim, who has already been a politician and chief of the Afghani Olympic committee, is central to the affair.
Karim rebuffs such accusations: “I don’t intervene in the work of the head coach and the team. They pick their own players and select the team accordingly.” Instead, the head of the association throws the accusations back. “Khalida was a manager of this team. If there were individual cases, she should bring them forward.” The head of the association insists that at the root of it was the question of whether or not the players had to wear the hijab.
Khalida Popal (left) in Mexico supporting girls from socially deprived families through her Girl Power Organization
Retirements because of hijab duty
This issue has proved contentious for the national team. Two players who have refused to wear a hijab whilst playing football are Hamburg-born Shabnam and Mariam Ruhin. Since their youth, the sisters have played for fourth division club Einigkeit Wilhelmsburg and have been part of the Afghanistan international team since 2012.
This week they explained the reason for their retirement from the national team on Facebook. “We are deeply affected by the decision of the Afghanistan Football Federation (AFF) that, despite our positive development in the past years under the new staff, we are only allowed to continue our activities as national team players if we sign a contract that renounces our fundamental right to religious freedom and freedom of action.”
Both women work with the Danish sponsor of the Afghani women’s team. The sportswear manufacturer Hummel equip the team and, along with the players, have designed a kit that covers them from head to toe, effectively including the hijab in the kit. Now, the company has put their sponsorship on ice – until the investigation is over.