Afghan women’s football team a symbol of resistance against Taliban repression
8 Aug 2023|

This month marks two years since the US and allied retreat from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s resumption of power there. Amid all the depressing news about the brutal, misogynistic rule of the Taliban, in July there was a welcome moment in Australia’s display of support for Afghan women. Foreign Minister Penny Wong joined the Afghan women’s football team in a friendly kick of the ball in solidarity with them—an act that deserves commendation.

The Afghan football team, made up of young women from different segments of Afghanistan’s diverse population, has been in Australia under the country’s humanitarian program since they were evacuated in August 2021. The team now wishes to be recognised officially as Afghanistan’s national team without any identification with the Taliban’s de facto regime.

The women of Afghanistan are the most oppressed gender group in the world. The Taliban’s patriarchal gender-apartheid rule has deprived them of their basic human rights. They are banned from leading a normal life in every sense of the word. Even the right to education and work has been taken away from them, and movement outside is only allowed with a legal chaperone (husband, brother or father).

They have been forced to cover themselves from top to toe in the traditional burqa, and to remain mostly confined in their homes for the exclusive purpose of marrying, bearing children and performing domestic chores. Some girls as young as 12–13 years have been forcibly either married to or sexually abused by members of the Taliban. The psychological and physical effects of this have taken a heavy mental toll on them, and the rate of suicide among them is increasing.

This has come after Afghanistan experienced two decades of pro-liberalist changes during the US-led intervention in the country. Gone are the days when women were given opportunities to abandon some of the outdated cultural traditions and to participate actively in the reconstruction of their country.

In modern times, female emancipation began, though on a very modest scale, in the late 1950s in the traditionally conservative Muslim Afghanistan. It progressed intermittently under the conditions of warfare until it was shut down by the first round of the Taliban rule (1996–2001). However, during the two-decade-long US and allied involvement in Afghanistan, female education took off substantially, and many women participated in politics, administration, media and businesses. At one point, Afghanistan had more women in its pro-democratic cabinet and parliament than Australia, despite the conflict raging across the country. It is an enormous shock and tragedy that all that progress has now been reversed by the Taliban.

The Taliban have justified their barbaric actions against women and against any form of opposition in order to impose their totalitarian rule in the name of a version of Islam that is not practiced in any other Muslim majority country. There is absolutely nothing in Islam that endorses their ultra-extremist and ethno-tribal-centric interpretation and application of the religion. The group’s version of Islam is more focused on establishing tribal, political supremacy and changing Afghanistan into their image than serving the cause of Islam as a tolerant and humane faith.

The narrowly educated Taliban leaders, plus most of their illiterate commanders and fighters, have been trained in, and are backed by, neighbouring Pakistan in pursuit of a proxy domination of Afghanistan for its regional interests. The Taliban have repeatedly been told by most Muslim leaders and institutions, as well as the international community as a whole, that they are on the wrong side of Islam and history. But these remonstrations have had little effect.

The group’s actions have amounted to defaming Islam. They have defied the global demand for the formation of an inclusive government and respect for human rights, including those of women and girls, which are enshrined in Islam. They seem intent on using their hardline stance as a bargaining chip for gaining international recognition. This recognition must be denied, as their de facto regime has no domestic legitimacy.

Many brave women of Afghanistan have repeatedly dared to challenge the Taliban’s draconian impositions despite being subjected to the group’s repressive measures. Their protests are paralleled by the emergence of several armed resistance groups in the country. At the forefront is the National Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Massoud (son of the famed Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who resisted the Soviet invasion in the 1980s and subsequently the Taliban, but was assassinated by al-Qaeda agents two days before 11 September 2001).

Wong’s support of the Afghan football team and Afghan women in general deserves warm applause. It is also now time for Australia and the rest of the world to throw their weight behind the resistance to the Taliban rule. There is no other option than to forcefully prompt the group through coordinated pressure from inside and outside Afghanistan to change its ways. Otherwise, as the UN warned in a recent report, Afghanistan is in serious danger of giving rise to more regrettable terrorist actions under the Taliban.