By Hawa Mahmoodi
Martial arts teacher Shafiqa Sadat Mohseni was coaching her students at her small club in the west of Kabul on Sunday, August 15, when the Taliban entered the city.
She wasn’t feeling well that morning, but she came to the club anyway. “I thought working with the students at the club might help me relax,” she said.
At 11 a.m. she received the news that the Taliban had taken control of Kabul.
Mohseni rushed to close the club and say goodbye to her students. Unlike all the other farewells they had exchanged over the past five years, this felt different. They didn’t know when, or if, they would meet again.
Two months on, they have still not seen each other.
“My club has been closed since that day. My students ask me ‘what should we do? The Taliban are here, we are no longer allowed to practice at the club, where should we go?’” Mohseni told Rukhshana Media.
Mohseni, who also worked as a journalist, says her media outlet has also been shut since the Taliban took over. “Now the Taliban have taken everything I was living for,” she said.
She set up the martial arts club five years ago when street harassment and robbery dominated women’s concerns in Kabul. “I thought, what if women can learn to fight back and defend themselves?” she said. “I wanted to train them.”
With the Taliban now in power, Mohseni lost her rights to run her sports club and train her students to defend themselves.
Although the Taliban have not publicly announced their policy on women’s participation in sport, at least one Taliban official described women’s participation in cricket as “not necessary.”
“Islam and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan do not allow women to play cricket or play the kind of sports where they get exposed,” Ahmadullah Wasiq, deputy head of the Taliban’s cultural commission, told Australian broadcaster SBS in an interview in early September, using the group’s name for itself.
When the previous Taliban regime collapsed in 2001, Afghan women took their rightful place in sport. They actively participated in all forms of sport that were available in the country, from sport to volleyball to taekwondo and cricket. They became Olympians, Paralympians and professional players earning salaries. Those choices now put their lives at risk.
Masouma Habibi, a member of Afghanistan’s national Taekwondo team, is now living in hiding in Kabul. When she gets frustrated, she punches the wall.
For years, she practiced Taekwondo in secret — even though her family was in the dark. But the medals she won over the past few years helped her earn the acceptance she deserved. But that all disappeared when the Taliban regained control of the country in mid-August. “Now, the medals I won are the cause of my suffering rather than pride,” she told Rukhshana Media. “People ridicule me by asking what happened to your career in sport? They told me, ‘It’s time for you to get married.’”
When Herat province fell to the Taliban in early August, Tamanna’s parents hid their three daughters’ sportswear—clothes that used to be a source of pride for Tamanna and her sisters. They fled the western province for Kabul, thinking they would find safety, but then that city fell, too.
“As soon as we arrived, the Taliban captured Kabul,” said Tamanna, a high school student and a member of the national girls’ volleyball team.
Shahla, Tamanna’s eldest sister, also a member of the national girls’ volleyball team, feels especially guilty as she encouraged her sisters to take up sport, giving them hope to continue working for a better future. “My sisters ask me, ‘Will school reopen for us? Will we be able to go to university? Will we be able to work?’ And I have no answer.”
Aziza is a sports coach in one of the schools of Kabul; for years, she has worked to promote sports among girls in her country. Just when she felt challenges were being overcome, and restrictions on female athletes were loosening, she lost everything. “My students were talented. Some of them were members of the national volleyball team,” Aziza said. “But when Kabul fell to the Taliban, my team was dissolved and some of my students left the country.”
She says that with the Taliban’s restrictions on women including high school and work, she no longer feels she has the right to coach girls.
Yasmin Ahmadi, 21, the first and the only female referee in the Afghanistan National Taekwondo Federation, also lost her job since the Taliban takeover.
She started Taekwondo seven years ago with the hope to bring pride to her country. “I wanted to raise the Afghanistan flag,’ she says. “With the Taliban’s ban on women’s sport, I lost not only my source of income, but my motivation for living,” she said.
These women call on the international community not to leave them alone and to help them protect their hard-won rights.
Mohseni, the martial arts teacher, has since asked the Karate and Martial Arts Federation to allow her to coach girls in martial arts, so they can defend themselves. But the federation rejected her request. “I want to open my club, but I am afraid that something might happen to my students,” Mohseni said. “I have suggested to the federation to allow me to open the club only for girls with Islamic dress code, but they didn’t accept it.”