Football champ with a solid kick!~Khalida Popal

Afghanistan-born Khalida Popal has got what it takes to rise above formidable and complex circumstances – guts and determination! She defied men and society, and even Taliban to become an award-winning international football star!

The Womenz Bureau is proud to present an exclusive interview with  Khalida Popal and here’s what she shared with us

What was life like during Taliban rule?

I started playing football at an early age with my brothers when I was living as a refugee in Pakistan during the dark days of Taliban regime. When I returned to Afghanistan with my family I started going to school in Kabul city it was 2002. There was the fear from Taliban amongst the women and girls at school. 

My classmates were still wearing the burqa and they had feared that Taliban will be back in the city. I was one of the youngest girls in my class. Most of the girls during Taliban rule who stayed in the country were not allowed to go to school or participate in any sports activities.  I was in 10th grade in Kabul. When I left Kabul city I was in 2nd year of school.

How did your liking for football begin?

There weren't any after-school activities and there weren't any fun or sports activities for women. I was bored and tired. I wanted to stay longer at school with my classmates. My mother was my school teacher and she was teaching us English and physical education/sports. She gave me one very old football that she had it amongst sports equipment. I started kicking the ball around and I found a girl who used to play football with her brothers. I started playing with her.  I was very happy that I found a friend who could play with me. After school, we were meeting and playing with each other in the backyard of school.  We started gathering other girls so we could play football. We encouraged more classmates and we could manage to bring two more with us.

We were up to four players, everyone a teenager. We had so much fun after school by playing football. We started gathering more girls on our team. We formed two teams so that that we could play together.

Did any problems arise when you started playing the game?

Football was a fun game for us until we got attacked by a group of men from outside of our school. A group of young men jumped over from the wall of the school and running towards us took the ball and destroyed it. They looked to us and started chatting and laughing. They said a woman cannot walk properly like a woman who plays a man’s game. They stole our school bags and left. 

We were all very sad and disappointed. I was so angry I felt like someone raped me, knocked me down, someone came and took everything from me. But I couldn't shout. I couldn't raise my voice.  I was so mad at myself. I didn't like myself. I didn't like anything about me. I hated being a woman at that time. 

But I raised myself and promised that I won't be silenced forever. I won't keep quiet and I will show them that a woman is strong, they can stand for their rights and they can play football.  

Football isn't for men only it’s for women too. Nowhere in the book of any religion or law is written that women cannot play football.  I told this to my girls and we started taking football as a mission for life. 

Football changed from playing for fun to using football as a tool to raise our voice and stand for equality and equal rights. My mother joined us too and we started campaigns to encourage more women to join us and participate in football activities.

We went to players’ homes and took permission from parents of the players and we encouraged girls to join us. Most of the families were against us, against our activities and kicked us out of their house. They called us bitches and prostitutes.

While our group was growing and our activities were developing, people around different communities, societies were getting more aware of us and our activities. We were facing street harassment, abuse, and most of the people on the street threw stones at us, and ccalled us bitches and prostitutes.

How does the Afghan society look at women?

Being a woman in Afghanistan has never been easy. It is not easy to be a woman in a strict culture and religious country like Afghanistan.  Being involved in any social activities for a woman invites great danger and risk. People don't appreciate women being active in Afghanistan. There are a few people who support women, but those numbers are miniscule. The system, the culture and the government all are against women’s active participation in society.

It’s a male-dominated country and men are afraid of losing power to women. The mentality is that women should be like a machine that brings kids, washess clothes and sleep with men.

That made me stand and say no to all unfair treatment against women. I never want to be a victim. That is why I raised my voice and stood against inequality, discrimination. I promised myself to be the voice of the voiceless.

What challenges are you facing for the role you have taken upon yourself?

I and many women who play football or do any social activities are putting their life at great risks and face death threats. The reason we could and we still continue playing and participating in football is because we cant bear it and take it . Women in Afghanistan are tired of being victims and being voiceless. That is why they put their lives in line for other generations that can live the life we dreamed about.

Being an activist and voice of the voiceless has never been easy for me. I faced so many challenges, death threats, abuse and violence. Even my family faced challenges and difficulties and threats because of my activities. But one thing I know is to never give up and hope for change.

What steps are being taken to encourage women to participate in the game?

After doing many campaigns we could manage to encourage schools to have their women football teams.

We went to a football association to register our teams and organize official tournaments where we can play and compete for the national team. They accepted because they wanted to get the FIFA budget which was for women’s football. We give them our budget and they gave us the right to play. In 2005 our clubs were registered and in 2007 the first women national team were formed.

And I played in the first national team of women’s for the first time. We made history by playing in the first women's national football team.

In 2007 we participated in Pakistan women's league and it was the first time we were playing on real standard grass pitch. Wearing the national team kit and hearing the national anthem and standing before the country’s flag was such a great moment in our life. Even before playing the game we felt victory because we earn to play for the national team. We fought for that and we got that right.

As you look how has been the journey?

It wasn't the easy journey to make it to the national team. We faced so many challenges, risks, threats, but we didn't give up because we were living towards our mission to make women visible and raise our voice for equality and make history by playing football as the first group of women.

My journey didn't end up with forming the national team. I wanted more and playing in the national team was not enough for me. I wanted to develop women's football around the country and playing for the national team as a player could not help me. I started fighting for the position in women’s football committee as a chairperson.  

I was the first woman in the history of Afghanistan football federation who started working in a finance position in the federation and then in the women's football committee.  By working in the federation opened the doors of opportunity for many women in the federation to start working there.

What has been the reward for your fighting spirit?

Today in Afghanistan more than 4000 women are playing football; we have women’s national team, and youth teams. More than 10 women are working in the football federation.

I put my life and my families life in line for such development. I was encouraging women to stand for their rights. I used the media as a tool to encourage more women to stand for equality.  I fought for the salary with the national players and I won. Today the women's national team has a salary.


What were some of deadly threats you confronted? 

My voice for my development was a big threat for men who were in power in the sports industry. I started talking to the media about corruption they were involved in, and about the misuse of power they had. That put my life in danger. I faced death threats from those powerful guys and I had to leave my country in order to protect my life and my voice. They wanted to shut my voice.I lived underground in India and the owner of a sports company helped me to get out and end in Denmark. I sought asylum in Denmark and got permission.

During my stay in asylum centres, I felt there is a need to help those women who were living there for many years. The women were suffering from depression and stress while waiting for their case.

Why did you start Girl Power Organisation? How it is working towards the goal of empowering girls.

I started my own organization by the name of Girl Power Organisation. Through that organization I started providing sports activities that could help women to get out of the asylum centers and play  sports.


What is the Afghan government’s stance towards women’s sports activities? 

The government never supported our activities in Afghanistan. And in Denmark, our activities are based on volunteerism and non-governmental funds.

The girls in Afghanistan have to wear long sleeves and tights while playing football. If they don't wear that they face a lot of problems from their family side, neighbors and in the community they live in.

What are future plans and your message for fellow women?

The future plan is to help the national team of Afghanistan to play in the Asian qualification cup, and to help refugee women to get network and help them to participate in sports activities.

My message to every woman around the world is to be united and help each other. We can’t change the women’s situation around the world. Fighting as an individual is very difficult. Only if women come together and stay united and help each other women become powerful. Then it won't be easy for anyone to hurt women when they are a strong unit. 

We at The Womenz express our earnest appreciation for sharing your story with us. We believe it will surely stimulate fellow women in every country and continent in the world. 

Khalida Popal can be reached on Instagramtwitter and Facebook 

First Published: 28-May-2018- 15:45